Месечни архиви: June 2018

The Bugs Are Winning

BSIP/UIG/Getty ImagesPenicillium chrysogenum (also known as Penicillium notatum), the mold that produces the antibiotic penicillin

I never knew my aunt, Pessimindle. As a teenager in the early 1900s, she developed appendicitis and rapidly succumbed to the infection. At the time, there were no antibiotics. When I was growing up, my father contrasted the loss of his sister with the advent of penicillin that saved many of his fellow soldiers in the waning days of World War II. I was taught that medicine could create miracles, which should never be taken for granted.

Penicillin was serendipitously discovered when the researcher Alexander Fleming went on vacation in the summer of 1928. He returned to his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, to find that a petri dish with bacteria had been left open and had become contaminated by a relatively rare strain of airborne mold, Penicillium notatum, its spores likely drifting in through the window. The growth of the bacteria in the dish was inhibited by the mold. Its inhibitory substance, termed penicillin, was produced in scant quantities and was laborious to purify. A worldwide search was launched to find other strains of Penicillium that produced higher concentrations; promising samples were obtained in Cape Town, Mumbai, and Chongqing, but the best came from an overripe melon bought at a fruit market in Peoria. Pharmaceutical companies scaled up production of the antibiotic and, beginning with the D-Day landings in 1944, it was widely available to Allied troops.

Fleming recognized not only the opportunity afforded by the open petri dish, but also the peril from misusing the drug. In his speech accepting the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine he said:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X, whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Fleming’s advice to use the antibiotic properly was widely disregarded, not by “the ignorant man” but by “negligent” medical professionals. Prescriptions of penicillin in suboptimal dosages led to the emergence of bacteria resistant to it.

This is because bacteria reproduce at an astonishing rate. E. coli, commonly found in our colon, has a generational interval of about twenty minutes. Homo sapiens has an average generational interval of thirty years. So, over two and a half years, E. coli goes through the same number of generations as we do in two million years. As DNA is copied to spawn the next generation, random errors (mutations) occur, and the more copying, the more random mutations. If an antibiotic is used in suboptimal concentrations, then bacteria with random mutations that confer some level of resistance to the drug are more likely to survive and over many generations become impervious to it.

Researchers thus play leapfrog with bacteria that are resistant to one antibiotic by searching for a new one that is effective. William Hall, Anthony McDonnell, and Jim O’Neill in their lucid and thoughtful book Superbugs recount that for several decades, this strategy succeeded. But now we are running out of options. Potent antibiotics that were mainstays in the clinic over the four decades that I’ve practiced medicine, like ampicillin, ceftazidime, and imipenem, typically fail to eradicate many of the bacteria that currently cause infections.

Bacteria that have developed immunity to a large number of antibiotics are termed “superbugs.” The best known is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. It originally appeared in intensive care units, among surgical patients. In this setting, MRSA primarily causes pneumonia and bloodstream infection from catheters. But over the past two decades, the resistant microbes have spread outside hospitals to the larger community. At the end of the 1990s this superbug infected children in North Dakota and Minnesota, then was found among men who have sex with men and in prisons among prisoners. A widely publicized outbreak occurred among the St. Louis Rams football team, transmitted by shared equipment. Other MRSA outbreaks were reported among religious groups in upstate New York, Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and people who have received tattoos without proper sanitary precautions. Resistant forms of so-called gram-negative bacteria—characterized by cell walls that protect them from many antibiotics—have also emerged, like Klebsiella and Acinetobacter, which often cause death. Recently, resistant strains of gonorrhea have been detected in Asia.1

Superbugs only briefly reviews the science of bacterial resistance; its focus is on the societal consequences. While there are no exact data on the total number of people dying each year from resistant microbes, the authors calculate it to be at least 1.5 million. This number outstrips deaths from road accidents (1.2 million) and approximates the number of deaths from diabetes (1.5 million).

The economic burden on our health care systems is considerable. People with resistant infections spend more time in the hospital, require more care from doctors and nurses, are treated with more expensive drugs, and often have to be isolated from other patients. In the United States, it costs an average of $16,000 to treat a patient with Staphylococcus aureus that is susceptible to the antibiotic methicillin, with an 11.5 percent chance of death; if the bacteria are resistant, the cost jumps to $35,000 and the chance of the patient dying more than doubles. A study from the European Medicines Agency in the European Union, which includes England, estimated the cost to EU health care systems at €900 million ($1.06 billion).

The impact of bacterial resistance on economic productivity is also significant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States have estimated that resistance costs the American health care system about $20 billion per year, to which productivity losses add a further $35 billion. Using the American estimates, the authors of Superbugs extrapolate the total costs of antimicrobial resistance worldwide to about $57 billion for health systems, with the reduction in world productivity valued at $174 billion.

Based on these economic calculations, Superbugs provides a set of policy prescriptions, framed in pragmatic terms meant to motivate self-interested politicians:

Governments might not want to invest in solutions, but they will ultimately pay either way. Any money not spent now will result in substantial costs in the future—not to mention many lost lives. Serious damage to economic productivity (which by extension threatens governments’ tax incomes) coupled with the higher costs of health care (which is largely government funded) should provide the impetus to deal with this crisis now.

Investment to combat superbugs begins with identifying new antibiotics. Almost all antibiotics are still derived from natural compounds, like Fleming’s penicillin. Although researchers at the Rockefeller University have recently devised advanced methods to facilitate the search, it is unclear how many antibacterial agents are left to discover.2 The most prudent approach is to rely not on discovery but on conservation. “We need to think of our current antibiotics as nonrenewable natural resources,” Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill write.

Long before we discovered the environmental damage caused by burning hydrocarbons, we were keenly aware that one day the world would run out of coal and oil and that not only should we not waste them, but we should develop renewable resources.

This in part has been the focus of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations:

Both government and industry plan for the exhaustion of rare earth metals that are needed in electronics and elsewhere. This is not to say that we will never find any new antibacterial compounds…. However as it is unclear how many more drugs can be found in the future, we should work hard to protect the ones we have, as well as new ones that we find.

They provide a concise overview of the logistics of new drug development. It normally takes ten to fifteen years to bring a new therapy to market, at a cost of more than a billion dollars. Intellectual property rights give the company a monopoly over the drug for some twenty years, depending on the country. After that, low-cost generic manufacturers typically jump in to sell it at a reduced price. Much of those twenty years is spent testing the drug in clinical trials, so investment costs are recouped over only about a decade. The company generally makes no significant profit after the patent expires. Still, high sales usually mean that patented drugs end up making a profit.

Antibiotics, the authors show, are paradoxically different in the marketplace when properly prescribed:

If an excellent new antibiotic is effective against infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria, most public health officials would want to protect it for use in the most extreme circumstances and would discourage it from being sold worldwide. To get the maximum benefit from the drug and prevent the development of resistance, it is important that people not use it frequently.

This makes eminent sense from a public health point of view, in effect safeguarding a precious social resource:

When asked what she would do with a useful new antibiotic, the chief medical officer for England, Sally Davis, said that the drug “would need a stewardship program”—that is, that systems would have to be in place to make sure that the antibiotic was only prescribed when absolutely necessary. Indeed, limiting unnecessary use is essential to keep bacteria from becoming resistant to new antibiotics, and thus essential for our continued health.

While this is a cogent strategy, it doesn’t coincide with the marketing goals of the drug industry: “When a really useful new antibiotic is found, the company that invests in it cannot rely on high sales for return on investment.”

Commercial imperatives also work against societal needs in the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. This is partly a result of the sheer number of animals being reared yearly to feed the world’s seven billion–plus people. Antibiotics were introduced into agriculture in the 1950s, when it was discovered that regular low doses of them made farm animals grow faster and larger. Consumers could purchase meat at lower prices, since the drugs reduce production costs for farmers. Globally, more antibiotics are estimated to be used today for animals than for humans. For example, “over 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States, by volume, are sold for use in farm animals.” Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill note that

antibiotics are more effective growth promoters when used for animals kept in cramped, dirty, unregulated conditions than for animals living in cleaner, more open, more controlled environments. Under suboptimal conditions, the growth promoters are for all practical purposes a substitute for good infection prevention and control.

The effects of antibiotics on growth are not fully understood. They may alter the animal’s microbiome—the bacteria in the gut—as well as prevent infection, so less energy is expended on fighting microbes.

Our environment is becoming contaminated with antibiotics and their residues in several ways. The first is a result of body waste—from both animals and humans. According to Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill, “Studies suggest that as much as 75 to 90 percent of antibiotics may be excreted from animals without being metabolized. This waste goes into the soil and is then washed into the water systems.” Second, when pharmaceutical factories dump their untreated waste that contains the active ingredients of antibiotics into the water supply, they save money on expensive disposal. Such practices encourage the development of antibiotic resistance, since we are thus exposed to low and varying amounts of the drugs, as Fleming warned.

Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill argue that “antibiotics provide a backbone to the entire healthcare system,” essential in everything from hip surgery to cancer treatment to organ transplantation. Thus developing effective antibiotics should be recognized as a “public good.” This justifies governmental intervention with incentives for the creation of new drugs. But such incentives have not been forthcoming, partly, in the authors’ view, because “electoral cycles encourage short-term thinking.” This kind of thinking has become particularly acute with the economic and social upheavals of the recent elections in the United States and Europe:

If a prime minister or president invests government resources to curtail drug resistance, they are unlikely to get huge rewards from the electorate. People generally do not vote on how well the government is dealing with a future problem, and they do not have enough knowledge of the early stages of research to make judgments. As a result, the political incentives have not been sufficient to pressure governments into action.

To overcome these barriers, they recommend a public innovation fund that covers early-stage research, as well as “non-cutting edge research that has societal benefit but little commercial attractiveness”; enhanced collaboration among companies in conducting clinical trials; harmonization of new drug regulation to reduce the costs of development; and “market entry rewards” that will compensate a company for creating useful products.

In agriculture, the authors write, methods are needed to rear animals without antibiotics. But “progress on an international scale will be a challenge because many meat-producing countries have a financial interest to continue antibiotic use.” Still, farming practices can be profitably improved, as occurred in Denmark, where farmers significantly reduced use of antibiotics while sustaining productivity; the country is one of the largest exporters of pork in the world. This has been possible despite regulations to limit the use of antibiotics, in part because of improved infection control procedures, which lowered infection rates and reduced the need for drugs. Denmark also improved the monitoring of antibiotic sales and use, which enabled the government to intervene if farmers were disregarding the law. It did this through what was called a “‘yellow card system’—pig farmers using the most antibiotics were sent warnings that they might face penalties.”

Given this evidence of economic competitiveness despite the regulation of antibiotic use in livestock, Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill propose international agreements as a first step toward remedying the urgent issue of superbugs. “A combination of taxation, regulation, and subsidies for alternatives to antibiotics should be developed.”

But regulation is needed not only in farming. When we are treated for bacterial infection, we excrete unmetabolized antibiotics that enter our water systems. As the authors write, “A wastewater system that eradicates all traces of antibiotics does not yet exist, partly due to the high cost of development.” This issue is especially prominent in hospital waste, since patients are more likely to have antibiotic residues in their feces, in addition to drug-resistant bacteria. “This combination has the potential to create hotspots of resistance.”

Yet another obstacle is found where antibiotics are often manufactured, in India and China, where production costs are minimal. There is often poor quality control of the content of the antibiotic pills manufactured in these countries. They also often contain less of the active drug than advertised.3 Again, as Fleming noted, undertreatment with suboptimal doses of antibiotics fosters bacterial resistance.

At the 2016 G7 meeting, chaired by Japan, world leaders recognized how market forces mitigate against new drug development and called on international institutions to rectify the problem. While these leaders recognized the importance of increased access to antibiotics for their underserved populations, they also highlighted the need for stewardship in use of the drugs for both patients and animal husbandry.

The authors assert that political will is needed to find the funds for implementing incentives. They estimate that an investment of $40 billion over ten years is required for the world to avoid a $100 trillion cost by 2050. They argue that “the potential to prevent an increase from 1.5 million to 10 million deaths per year should make every one of us stand up and take note.”

But I am not hopeful that such pragmatism will prevail. Superbugs was written before the sharp shift in our politics, notably Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The withdrawal of the United States from both the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been followed by a declaration of trade wars, which the president tweets are “good” and “easy to win.” This absurd delusion fits with his view that all deals are binary, with “winners and losers” rather than agreements that may benefit both parties in the negotiation.

Such brute nativist thinking undermines global cooperation, which is needed for the proposals of Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill. If the recent lifting of salutary regulations by Trump’s EPA on the chemical and mining sectors are any indications of disregard for the environment, there is scant hope that measures to limit factory dumping of antibiotic waste will be pursued. Still, some within the administration are trying to address the threat of superbugs in the defense budget, where research on antibiotic resistance may be cloaked under the aegis of national security.4 But such singular measures will ultimately fall short without a comprehensive and coordinated plan of cooperation among nations.

  1. 1

    For greater detail on the science of bacterial resistance, see my “Superbugs: The New Generation of Resistant Infections Is Almost Impossible to Treat,” The New Yorker, August 11, 2008; and “Sex and the Superbug: The Rise of Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2012. See also Ellie Kincaid, “New Study Raises Specter of More Bacteria Resistant to Last Line Antibiotics,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2017. This April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an update on multidrug-resistant microbes in the United States. Bacteria that were believed to be rare proved more common than previously thought, with unusual resistance making them impervious to most available antibiotics. See Kate Russell Woodworth et al., “Vital Signs: Containment of Novel Multidrug-Resistant Organisms and Resistance Mechanisms—United States, 2006–2017,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 67, No. 13 (April 6, 2018). 

  2. 2

    Bradley M. Hover, Zachary Charlop-Powers, Sean F. Brady et al., “Culture-Independent Discovery of the Malacidins as Calcium-Dependent Antibiotics with Activity Against Multidrug-Resistant Gram-Positive Pathogens,” Nature Microbiology, February 12, 2018.  

  3. 3

    Patricia McGettigan, Peter Roderick, Abhay Kadam, and Allyson Pollock, “Threats to Global Antimicrobial Resistance Control: Centrally Approved and Unapproved Antibiotic Formulations Sold in India,” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, February 21, 2018.  

  4. 4

    Ike Swetlitz, “Drug Makers Lobby for Antibiotic Incentives in Pandemic Preparedness Bill,” STAT+, February 27, 2018. 

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The Last of the Tzaddiks

Ralph Alswang/Religious Action Center of Reform JudaismRabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and others protesting in support of ‘Dreamer’ immigrants, Washington, D.C., January 2018

In the somewhat exotic Jewish home in Iowa where I grew up, it was axiomatic that there was an intimate link between Judaism and universal human rights. Like nearly all Eastern European Jewish families in America, my parents and grandparents were Roosevelt Democrats, to the point of fanaticism. They thought that the Jews had invented the very idea, and also the practice, of social justice; that having started our history as slaves in Egypt, we were always on the side of the underdog and the oppressed; that the core of Judaism as a religious culture was precisely this commitment to human rights, and that all the rest—the 613 commandments, the rituals, the theological assertions—was no more than a superstructure built upon a strong ethical foundation. For me, this comfortable illusion was shattered only when I moved to Israel at the age of eighteen.

There is indeed, as James Loeffler shows in Rooted Cosmopolitans, a strong historical link between European Jews and the struggle for human rights in the twentieth century. Loeffler tells the stories of remarkable people such as Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, born near Lemberg (Lvov) in 1897, who was one of the first jurists to engage seriously with the idea of a binding international law encompassing universal human rights (he wrote preliminary drafts of both the International Bill of Rights and Israel’s Declaration of Independence); Jacob Robinson, who played an important part in designing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as well as in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; and Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International in 1961 (three years after he had converted to Catholicism).

Several of Loeffler’s heroes emerged from the political and cultural matrix of post–World War I Eastern Europe and from the struggle for what was then termed “minority rights.” The Jews of Eastern Europe, always vulnerable to attack by anti-Semitic nationalist majorities, provided the paradigm for this discussion, which, as we know too well, collapsed with the rise of the Nazis. Before that, in the 1920s and early 1930s, Weimar Germany had been the great hope and model for attempts to enshrine national minority rights in political and legal practice in the nations created after World War I.

Surprisingly little of the language of minority rights has survived into our generation, except perhaps when it is given a negative connotation, as in a recent speech by Israel’s current minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked: “There is place to maintain a Jewish majority [in Israel] even at the price of violation of [minority] rights.” In another formulation: “Zionism should not—and I’m saying here that it will not—continue to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universalist manner.” To some it might seem strange that Israel’s minister of justice is the sworn enemy of the country’s highest court, which is committed to upholding Israel’s Basic Laws. These provide (in lieu of a constitution) the legal basis for human rights, widely defined, among other matters; they include the landmark 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

Though Lauterpacht and Robinson were legal superstars during the short-lived heyday of the League of Nations, Loeffler’s account of their quixotic struggles is replete with irony. Both were ardent Zionists who saw no conflict between Jewish nationalism and the struggle for universal human rights: “Zionism, minority rights, Lithuanian independence, and European democracy—all went hand in hand.”

Reading Loeffler, one can’t help but notice how the Jewish fight for rights as a national minority within rabidly nationalist Central and Eastern Europe merged, after an unthinkable catastrophe, with the struggle for a Jewish nation-state in Palestine that now, seventy years later, discriminates against its own Arab minority within the Green Line (the pre-1967 border) and savagely persecutes millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Many would argue that this present situation is an aberration from the ethical goals set forth in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised that the new state would be based on “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and that it would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Others see in this stark devolution a palpable danger inherent in modern ethnic nationalism anywhere.

There were also dissenting voices among the Jewish humanist intellectuals whom Loeffler describes, including Jacob Blaustein, a confidant of Harry Truman and a consistent voice in favor of universal ethics in preference to, and ultimately at the expense of, narrowly nationalist (Zionist) goals. Indeed, Blaustein was overtly antinationalist; in his view, Zionism should “be reduced to a philanthropic refugee resettlement plan for Palestine,” though by 1947–1948 he had come to support the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine. Blaustein’s position, which he claimed was drawn from classical Jewish philosophy, found its strongest expression in the Declaration of Human Rights of 1944, which in turn contributed to the formulation of the UN Charter not long afterward.

Interestingly, Loeffler has very little to say about the older Jewish sources relevant to this theme of universal rights. Perhaps it’s just as well: one can easily exaggerate their influence and wonder about their rationale. Take, for example, the famous Talmudic ruling that a Jew is allowed to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save a human life. I and many others have often found comfort in this rule. However, as Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi have shown, in the premodern sources it applies only to saving a Jewish life; it can be stretched to include the life of a non-Jew only if there is a danger that by not saving that life the Jews may face reprisals from their non-Jewish neighbors (mi-shum eivah).1 So much for universal ethics. Opinions still vary as to whether Leviticus 19:18, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is similarly limited to one’s Jewish neighbor, as the earlier part of the verse suggests (“thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people”). I have had occasion to witness bitter debates on this text between Israeli peace activists and religious Israeli settlers on the West Bank. You can guess which interpretation the latter prefer.

In Israel, however, one can still find some unusually courageous figures committed to the prophets’ ideal of justice. Among them is Michael Sfard, who in one sense follows in the line of Loeffler’s exemplary figures and, in another sense, transcends them by far. He embodies their belief that there is an international legal, normative consensus on what constitutes inalienable human rights, and on which acts by modern nation-states have to be defined as criminal in this domain. But unlike them, Sfard is a battle-hardened activist for human rights in the Israeli courts, where he has argued landmark cases, with enormous consequences for the Palestinian civilian population in the territories.

Sfard’s The Wall and the Gate tells the story of that struggle, which he shares with other brilliant anti-establishment lawyers such as Avigdor Feldman, Felicia Langer, Leah Tsemel, Gaby Lasky, Elias Khoury, Tamar Peleg-Sryck, and Eitay Mack. These people operate in an impossibly hostile political and social environment. They have analyzed the situation in the occupied territories with sober clarity and drawn the necessary, practical conclusions. Their most important virtue is dogged persistence, which at times attains heroic proportions and even, though unfortunately rather rarely, achieves meaningful successes.

It is not obvious that the Israeli Supreme Court should have become the ultimate arena for this struggle. The High Court, like the various lower courts in Israel, is an integral part of the institutional fabric of the Israeli state; its justices are by no means immune to contamination by a hypernationalist ideology. In practice, they tend to accept, more or less without question, the often secret recommendations of the Israeli security forces; arguments that include a security aspect regularly trump arguments based primarily on ethical principles.

The military courts that try Palestinians in the territories exemplify this to an extreme degree. A Palestinian brought before such a court, for example in the notorious Ofer Prison north of Jerusalem, has no hope of achieving even the slightest semblance of justice. Conviction rates of Palestinians in these courts are higher than 99 percent. Proceedings take place in Hebrew, which Palestinian defendants often don’t understand, and security specialists routinely give secret testimony to which defendants and their counsel have no access.

Unlike the military courts, the High Court of Justice is often sensitive to both ethical considerations and international treaty law, though I agree with Sfard that “reviewing the legal conflict over the settlements, it is hard to imagine a more colossal failure.” He is talking about a moral failure, not only a legal one. At the very beginning of the settlement enterprise, which was entirely rooted in the theft of Palestinian land, the court probably could have ended, or at least significantly restricted, this unfolding disaster, still the major stumbling block to any future peace agreement. As Sfard says, after describing the legal test cases in great detail, the court chose not to go that route—“a choice made of free will.”

That story of how the Israeli legal system, at the highest level, pronounced the wholesale appropriation of Palestinian land by the state to be “kosher” has been told in these pages more than once; there is no need for me to repeat it here.2 Sfard highlights in his opening chapter and at other points in his riveting book a moral quandary derived from those early court decisions. It was most starkly articulated some ten years ago by Ilan Paz, a former head of the Civil Administration—the Israeli army unit that administers the occupied territories—at a conference of Israeli NGOs active in Palestinian rights:

Without human rights organizations, there is no occupation…. The army and the mechanisms that control life in the area rely on what human rights organizations do, on the fact that you represent Palestinians and bring their requests, needs, and demands to its people. Thanks to you, the most acute issues are resolved and major incidents are avoided, both locally and in terms of how the world sees things. To a great extent, your actions allow the occupation to go on.

Put simply: Israeli human rights activists working in the occupied territories manage at times to correct egregious abuses on the local and individual level and thus enable Israeli governments to claim—falsely—that the occupation is not indifferent to the basic needs of the occupied.

Paz was referring not only to actual litigation in the courts but also to the daily efforts of an impressive spectrum of organizations: the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Ta’ayush, MachsomWatch, Rabbis for Human Rights, Haqel, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, and Breaking the Silence, among others. These groups accompany Palestinian farmers and shepherds to their fields and grazing grounds and protect them from the predations of Israeli settlers and soldiers; they provide a restraining presence at the innumerable checkpoints and roadblocks manned by soldiers; they publicize routine criminal acts by military units operating in the territories; they offer emergency medical care to Palestinians unable to reach clinics and hospitals in the West Bank or in Israel; and, with particular emphasis, they are part of the unending legal battle for Palestinian lands, residency rights, and personal security, as well as a host of other pressing human rights issues.

Clearly, there is a problem here both of long-term strategy and of principle. Given the disappointing record of the High Court on issues involving Palestinian rights and lands, Sfard and several of his colleagues briefly considered boycotting the court or limiting their appeals to cases of acute humanitarian urgency (such cases are, unfortunately, all too common). “After all,” Sfard writes, “the Supreme Court had gone ahead and approved almost every harmful policy and practice pursued by the military in the Occupied Territories.” Has the very act of arguing such cases before the court made human ​rights lawyers like Sfard complicit, in some sense, in the ongoing, systemic evil of the occupation?

Corinna Kern/ReutersProtesters at a rally against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, Tel Aviv, April 2018

This is not a new question, and the integrity of courtroom lawyers is not the only thing at stake. In 1983, at the height of apartheid in South Africa, a well-known South African professor of law, Raymond Wacks, called on judges of conscience who knew the apartheid system was morally repugnant to resign their posts. Such judges were, he said, effectively imparting legitimacy to the regime. A lively debate developed; a particularly cogent response was published by the eminent jurist John Dugard (later UN special rapporteur on the Occupied Territories in Palestine). Dugard argued that there was more to South African law than the racist principles of apartheid and that a conscientious judge still had some freedom, however limited, to protect human rights—and a duty to exercise that margin of freedom.

We in Ta’ayush, Arab–Jewish Partnership, have faced versions of this argument many times. We have had considerable success in restoring Palestinian lands to their rightful owners and in protecting the civilian Palestinian population from attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Are we still, however, oiling the gears of the occupation machine? In some sense, we are. Once a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) activist who had read one of my reports from the field accused us of normalizing the asymmetrical relation between occupier and occupied and thus maintaining the unacceptable status quo.3 I can understand the logic of this claim, which restates discussions we have had among ourselves. But I think the dilemma outlined by Sfard and others is, in fact, far less agonizing than it might seem.

What is a decent human being supposed to do in the face of devastating threats to human dignity and basic human rights? Are we to turn our backs on our Palestinian friends in the South Hebron Hills and stand idly by while the state demolishes their homes, arrests them, and expels them from their lands? When the goal is saving lives, livelihoods, homes, and land, one doesn’t cling to ethical purity; one takes advantage of every crack or chink in the system.

It is not surprising, then, that human rights lawyers have kept on hammering at the High Court, despite their frequent losses, even as they recognize that the courts will never be the appropriate mechanism for achieving structural and political change. “Nonparticipation is not always a viable option,” Sfard writes. “A human rights worldview does not condone sacrificing the individual for the greater good (especially when this good is speculative and indirect).” There is every reason to believe, on the basis of long experience, that the Israeli government, if freed from even the mild constraints that human rights activists provide, would be only too happy to carry out in full the default policy of the right: violent expulsions of Palestinians and annexation of their land. In recent months, these policies have accelerated at many points in the occupied territories, including Susya, Khan al-Ahmar, and the northern Jordan valley. Just last month, on May 24, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can proceed with its plan to expel the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouins—several hundred people—from their homes just off the Jerusalem–Jericho road and to demolish, along with their tents and shacks, the first school they’ve ever had, built there in recent years.

Sfard and his colleagues have had some signal victories. Foremost among them was the 1999 High Court decision prohibiting torture in interrogations of Palestinian detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism. Before the decision, Palestinians arrested by the Shin Bet were routinely tortured to elicit information and confessions. The state and the Shin Bet ardently defended these practices, claiming that they were necessary in cases of a so-called ticking bomb, that is, a terrorist attack about to take place—though the vast majority of interrogations were not framed so dramatically but served only to amplify the data on Palestinians that the security services continually seek to compile. At a conservative estimate, many thousands of Palestinian arrestees were tortured, often severely, over the two or three decades before 1999.

The High Court postponed serious consideration of this issue for years, until it was forced by public pressure and activist litigation to confront it. Under the enlightened leadership of Aharon Barak, the court ruled, on moral grounds articulated in international law, that torture was illegal under most circumstances. That “most” was part of a significant loophole that allowed the security services to have an internal consultation when there was a perceived need for physical pressure on suspects. Torture has significantly diminished in Israel in recent years, but it has not disappeared, as a recent report published by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) makes clear.4

Sfard was also involved in mostly frustrating litigation against the proposed route of the separation barrier set up during the second intifada, nearly all of it on Palestinian land inside the West Bank, at some distance from the Green Line. The route was chosen by government planners operating on the assumption that the barrier might become the future border of the state, so it was drawn to keep to the west of the barrier every possible Israeli settlement in the territories. Huge tracts of Palestinian land were thereby effectively annexed to Israel, and many villages were ravaged, losing access to fields and grazing grounds. The High Court gave its blessing to this entirely dubious, not to say criminal, route.

But Sfard and others persuaded the judges to order significant adjustments at sites such as Bil’in—which became a focus for popular, nonviolent resistance to the barrier and its annexationist trajectory—and a cluster of villages near the settlement of Alfei Menashe in the north-central West Bank. Thousands of acres were restored to their Palestinian owners. Inevitably, the dilemma outlined above surfaced again: by arguing for changes in the route before a court that had already accepted the premise that the barrier would be built deep within Palestine, “the lawyers behind the litigation became part of the creation of the barrier.”

Sfard is perfectly aware of the complexities—legal, moral, political, human—inherent in the situation in which he and his colleagues operate. Israel and occupied Palestine are laboratories for existential and ethical experiment; one way or another, everyone makes his or her choices day by day. Most ordinary, decent Israelis acquiesce passively to the horrors of the occupation (a sizable minority actively supports the settlement enterprise).

Sometimes, however, protest erupts in unexpected ways. The Israeli government has recently begun deporting asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Close to 40,000 were scheduled for deportation or, if they refused to go, for open-ended incarceration in miserable conditions. The Israeli government was ready to pay the governments of Rwanda and Uganda to take these people, as later became clear. Very real, possibly life-threatening dangers awaited the deportees in these countries, including possible confiscation of their identity papers, the theft of their possessions, physical abuse, imprisonment, extortion, and the threat of being forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin (both South Sudan and Eritrea are engulfed in nightmarish violence). Most of these refugees have been in Israel for close to ten years; Hebrew is now their primary language; their children go to Israeli schools; for all intents and purposes apart from citizenship, these people are Israelis.

An unprecedented wave of popular protest brought many thousands of Israelis to the streets. El Al pilots and flight crews refused to fly the deportees to their deaths. Doctors, academics, lawyers, and many ordinary citizens, including Holocaust survivors and their relatives, spoke out. Some synagogues joined the struggle. Many stressed the unthinkable cognitive dissonance that arises from watching a Jewish state, founded by refugees from lethal oppression, sending tens of thousands of desperate African refugees to an unknown and precarious fate.

To add to the bitter irony, Gil Naveh, the spokesman for Amnesty International Israel, issued a statement demanding that Israel halt the deportations at once. The government, said Naveh, was using “hate speech” to dehumanize African asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” “criminals,” and “economic migrants” in order to rationalize their expulsion. In practice, most of their applications for asylum were never examined by the authorities, and those that were examined were almost invariably rejected. Sfard, in a recent interview in Haaretz, said:

The only explanation that I can find for the deportation [of the Africans] is that they have brown skin…. Everything about the asylum seekers’ story and about Jewish history should lead to the conclusion that we are the first among all nations that should have embraced them.

In March, when it turned out that there was no agreement with Rwanda and Uganda to protect the refugees (Netanyahu, as usual looking for a scapegoat, foolishly accused the New Israel Fund of having ruined the deal he thought he had with Rwanda), the government’s scheme collapsed under the weight of public pressure and the intervention of the High Court. Netanyahu then announced a reasonable plan worked out with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, whereby nearly half of the asylum seekers would be absorbed by Western countries and the rest would be allowed to stay in Israel; less than a day later, he reneged, caving in to pressure from the right and, some say, his wife and son. The threat of mass deportations has thus not disappeared, but so far the High Court, under Chief Justice Esther Hayut, has refused to sanction the state’s pitiless design.

Meanwhile, the government, driven by its extremist coalition partner the Jewish Home, is furthering a bill aimed at bypassing the High Court altogether by allowing a simple majority of sixty-one members of the Knesset to override the court’s rulings, particularly in cases involving basic human rights. This move is the most far-reaching attack ever made on the fundamental structure of Israeli democracy. If the bill passes, it will enshrine a tyranny of the majority and undermine the very concept of inalienable rights. We have come a long way from the days of Lauterpacht and Robinson.

So to return to our point of departure: Is there something recognizably Jewish, however we define the word, about the work of people like Michael Sfard or the public campaign in Israel to save the African refugees? It’s possible that Sfard himself and his colleagues would underplay this theme. They would certainly want to put themselves in the company of outstanding Palestinian human rights lawyers such as Elias Khoury, Muhammad Dahleh, and Quamar Mishirki. Like the Ta’ayush activists with whom I’ve worked, these unassuming figures invariably think of themselves as simply trying to do the right, human thing under extreme conditions—the antiheroic ideal of “common decency” that Albert Camus eloquently recommends toward the end of The Plague.

The Jews have, needless to say, no monopoly over such sentiments, but they do, despite everything, have an inescapable affinity with them. Not even fifty years of occupying and colonizing Palestinian land can entirely vitiate the empathy for the oppressed that is the Jews’ historic inheritance—though it is possible that the occupation is itself a cruel and distorted mutation of that same traumatic history. It is, however, a deep betrayal of one major strand of the tradition that predates, by many centuries, Enlightenment attempts to define universal values.

There have always been prominent voices like that of the Talmudic Hillel sage: “Where there is no one, try to be a human being” (my somewhat modernized translation).5 Sometimes I hear those words in my mind when soldiers are about to arrest us in South Hebron or when Israeli settlers try to kill us with heavy rocks, as happened last February 10 on the way from al-Tuani to Tuba. As has been the case throughout Jewish history, humane voices such as Hillel’s are today at war with sanctimonious, atavistic ones such as those that now dominate the public sphere in Israel. But as Sfard says in what might be the most important line of his book, “The fight isn’t over.”

  1. 1

    Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 221.  

  2. 2

    Most recently by Raja Shehadeh, “This Land Is Our Land,” January 18, 2018; and my “Occupation: ‘The Finest Israeli Documentary,’” May 22, 2014. See also Eyal Press, “How the Occupation Became Legal,” NYR Daily, January 25, 2012.  

  3. 3

    T.M. Krishna in Israel: Criticism, and a Response by David Shulman,” The Wire, February 4, 2017. 

  4. 4

    “Independent Report on Israel to the UN Committee Against Torture Towards the Review of the Fifth Periodic Report on Israel,” March 1, 2016.  

  5. 5

    Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2. 

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World Cup 2018: The Yob-Swagger of Inger-Land

Lars Baron/Getty ImagesFans clashing at an England vs. Russia match when France hosted the UEFA Euro 2016 championship

This is the fourth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


At the time of writing, I am not particularly exercised about England’s chances. Don’t worry, it will happen. I’ll get caught up in it, will once again face the possibility of having to relish my least favorite taste: the taste of England, the taste of ashes in the mouth.

I am always shocked by the way it takes hold, this faith in England, the desire for England to go all the way, as they say, in spite of the long record of thwarted hopes, hopes that are so necessary a prelude to the lingering after-taste—the permanent after-taste, if such a thing is possible—of ashes in the mouth that, as when savoring a complex wine, the fire of hope itself already burns with more than a hint of the ashes to come. Even bearing all this in mind, and even if the Russians are better-prepared, fitter, and, not for the first time in their history, fighting on home soil, I still have faith in our hooligans to show their mettle and do us proud.

When it comes to the actual football, I’m less sanguine. The two great English adventures of my adult life were Italia ’90 and the European Championships of 1996. The rest of the time, it’s been pretty dismal fare: endless variants of a single theme of dashed hopes, which is also how those two great adventures ended, in penalty shootouts against Germany in the semi-finals of both tournaments. On other occasions, there’s been an almost thrilling sense of failure—failure as achievement—as England somehow succeeds in being unable to crawl out of the group stage bloated with teams that are there just to make up the numbers.

I can name the entire English squad of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but, off the top of my head, can come up with only about eight of the current lot. I like Harry Kane, our new-style old-fashioned center forward, and I love Jamie Vardy with his yob face and yob haircut. Good old England, good old Yob-land. We want England to be non-racist, non-homophobic, non-misogynistic, and all that, but, God knows, however much we hate yobs, we don’t ever want England to be yob-free. Yes, yes, good old Bobby Moore, wiping his hand like a young King Lear before collecting the Jules Rimet trophy from the young Queen at Wembley in 1966, but in some ways, Liam Gallagher, former Oasis frontman and unrepentant super-yob, still full of yob-swagger—would be the ideal England captain.

Who is the captain these days? I dunno, but I hope he and manager Gareth Southgate drum into the lads the single most important lesson, the lesson that has fallen on deaf ears for many years: no cheating. Oh, but what’s the point? Football is all about cheating, it’s nothing but cheating, cheating and moaning about being cheated. They might as well rebrand it cheatball and have the trophy recast in the image of Thierry “le tricheur,” Henry’s handling the ball against Ireland in 2009. I look back nostalgically to the days when diving—or simulating being  fouled—was supposedly the preserve only of highly skilled foreigners, but England now has home-grown, world-class divers like Dele Alli of Tottenham. And although we must not get sentimental about the pre-cheating past, it’s difficult, when thinking of a scumbag like Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid and Spain), not to feel fondly toward the England defender Nobby Stiles. Instructed by manager Alf Ramsey ahead of the 1966 semi-final against Portugal to take Eusebio out of the game, the noble Stiles reportedly sought clarification: “You mean permanently?”

Even though England had its share of hard men back in the day—Ron “Chopper” Harris, Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter—we still considered ourselves superior to the Argentinians, whom Alf deemed “animals,” unfit even to exchange shirts with after we’d sent them packing. So when push comes to shove, when it comes to shoving opponents in the back and pushing them around in—no, it was just outside!—the penalty area, I always want England to win. I wanted us to win against Argentina in 1986 after Maradona handled the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton before he sent us packing with the best goal ever seen in the World Cup finals. I wanted us to win that match even though it would have meant that, for the rest of the tournament, we’d have been left watching Terry Butcher rather than El Diego himself. In retrospect, that would have been the worst possible outcome because then we would have missed out on seeing Maradona rightfully crowned as the greatest player in the world, one of the three greatest players of all time—right up there with Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles.

The thing is, you see, I love England even if it is, in some respects, a bit of a shithole and, in others, a complete shithole. No one will ever put it better than D.H. Lawrence of Nottingham Forest FC who considered himself “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England.”

So I’m glad I’ll be back there, in England, for the tailend of the group stages rather than watching the tournament from lovely, yob-less California, where the vast time difference means that many games will be kicking off at dawn. I have an event to attend at a bookstore in London on the evening of England’s last group match against gallant Belgium. With luck, we’ll have qualified by then, will have sent Tunisia and Panama packing, the way we were meant to have sent Iceland packing two years ago in the European Championships. Otherwise, if the group competition goes down to the wire, to that last match against silky Eden Hazard of Chelsea and the gallant Belgians, no one will be at my event. I won’t be there.

The World Cup overlaps with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. I watch way too much tennis on TV, and whereas I never feel that all the time spent watching too much tennis is time wasted, I often feel terrible after watching boring football matches when I could have been reading an even more boring work of great literature. Sometimes, after ninety minutes of nullifying normal time, plus injury time and the stultifying mutual negation of extra time, the only interesting thing is trying to guess who will be “inconsolable” after missing a penalty during the shootout resolution toward which the game has been drifting, goal-less, since kick-off. But that’s irrelevant, of course. My attitude has changed completely since I began writing this piece. I’m looking forward to this summer’s epic combination of football and tennis, to watching tennis and football on English telly all day long, except in the mornings when I can read the English papers about what I’ve watched on English telly the day before. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about: watching telly.

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Jazz and the Images that Hold Us Captive

Donald W. BurkhartJulius Eastman, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 1969

I was listening recently to a BBC radio documentary about the photographer and journalist Val Wilmer, who wrote a great book on the free jazz movement in the late 1970s, As Serious as Your Life (recently reissued by Serpent’s Tail). The title was taken from something the pianist McCoy Tyner said to her, explaining just how important music was to him. And Wilmer took that to heart, too, because her book is not only about musical form and expression, but also about the lives of musicians. It should be obvious that art and life are entangled, but for the first half of the twentieth century a bias toward formalism meant that jazz was seldom discussed in relation to the social, economic, and political struggles of those who played it. That changed in the 1950s with the emergence of left-wing jazz critics like Nat Hentoff and Eric Hobsbawm, writing for the New Statesman under the pen name Francis Newton, and, in the 1960s, critics influenced by the emerging black power movement, such as LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and A.B. Spellman. But then, a no less misleading tendency developed, which was to analyze jazz, especially formally adventurous, “free,” or avant-garde jazz, as some kind of direct expression of radical politics: the cry of urban rage or the voice of the black revolution. Questions of aesthetics, of the painstaking choices that people made when crafting their art, went out the door, as if music were simply another form of protest.

Wilmer, to her credit, had (and has) great feeling for the aesthetics of jazz. She understood, moreover, that the relationship between art and life is a very complicated one, and that it is forged in struggle or, rather, struggles. She was describing jazz made in an era of civil rights and black power, but she didn’t confine herself to questions of race, and gave particularly sensitive attention to the marginalization of women in jazz. What’s more, she grasped that there is a struggle that precedes all others: the matrix in which other struggles are inscribed, which is simply the human struggle to go through life, to endure, and to make one’s mark, whatever that may be. One needn’t embrace a spurious universalism blind to race and gender, or to other forms of discrimination, to see that this struggle is our common one, even if we experience it in very different ways inflected by our backgrounds and experiences. The making of art is also a struggle, because it involves the creation of something that wasn’t there before; it is a giving birth. 

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty ImagesRay Charles during a performance, circa 1970

In her BBC interview, Wilmer speaks of being incredibly moved when she first heard Ray Charles. What overwhelmed her were his cries of pain, which seemed to her more visceral than anything she’d ever heard in the white popular music she’d grown up with in England. The reason we’re so affected by singers like Charles, she goes on to say, is that they remind us of our experience in the womb. I’m more inclined to think that it’s the woman, rather than the child, who undergoes the agony of birth, but, in her somewhat mystical way, I think Wilmer is on to something. We’re moved by artistic expressions of pain, strife, suffering—and other, more joyous emotions—because, in their rawness of simulated emotion, they take us back to the earliest experiences of entering this world. 

Of course, not every artist taps into this emotion directly. When you look at an Agnes Martin painting or listen to Steve Reich’Music for 18 Musicians—and these are both artists I admire greatly—your first reaction isn’t to be moved by the pain they evoke. But I wonder if, in their calm and ordered elegance, they might suggest an angle of repose, a kind of transcendence from the world’s turbulence: what Cecil Taylor, the great avant-garde pianist who died in April, called “the air above mountains.” They didn’t get there by flying to the top; to reach that place, they first had to climb the mountain; they had to struggle.

Lou Reed has a wonderful line in the Velvet Underground song “Some Kinda Love”: “between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” Not just a lifetime, but a history, and a relationship to the larger forces of history. History isn’t a stage; it’s the air we breathe. It enables us, and traps us. It gives us life, and takes it away. I’ve often written about that place between “thought and expression” in the work of musicians and artists, practicing a biographical approach to criticism that is sometimes held in contempt, particularly in the academic world. It’s considered a bit lowly, partly because it’s often done poorly, in the form of facile psychologizing, partly because people’s lives are invariably messier than the work they produce. Art, we’re told, can’t be reduced to the life, which is very evidently true; or increasingly, we’re told that if an artist is a less than exemplary person—or, worse, a sexual predator—the art is no longer of value. This is a position that seems equally troubling to me, since we thereby deny ourselves a lot of valuable work, while flattering ourselves that we’re somehow virtuous for doing so. No question, we have to proceed cautiously in examining the lives of artists—really, of anyone. As James Wood nicely puts it in an essay on W.G. Sebald, “Because we are not God, our narration of another’s life is a pretense of knowledge—simultaneously an attempt to know and a confession of how little we know.” 

So, we have to be humble; we have to own up to the limits of our knowledge. We also have to ask ourselves: Why are we telling this particular story? Why, to take an example of someone I wrote about recently in the Review, are we so fascinated by the story of a composer who died nearly three decades ago in obscurity, a drug-addicted homeless man who spent his last days in Tompkins Square Park, close to starvation? I’m speaking of Julius Eastman, whose music is enjoying an extraordinary revival today. (Actually, revival isn’t the word for the hysteria surrounding Eastman’s work, because that implies rediscovery and this is really a discovery.) It seems to me that if we don’t examine the roots of this fascination, we end up obfuscating the story and creating a legend, a mythology, instead—in this case, the tale of a saint, brought down by the forces of social convention, power, racism, etc. Don’t get me wrong: Eastman battled throughout his life with racism and homophobia. He had a fascination with Joan of Arc, and was enthralled by the idea of martyrdom, hoping that he, too, might die for the cause of gay liberation. He gravitated to everything spiritual, and spiritualized everything he did, including his more hedonistic endeavors. If he were alive, he might very well be pleased by the canonization. 

Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty ImagesThe Ornette Coleman Quartet, including drummer Ed Blackwell, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and bassist Charlie Haden, New York, 1971

But it is one thing to say that Eastman was fascinated by heroism, and another to say that he lived his life as a hero, which is the impression left by some of the recent commentary about him. If you go along with that view, you’re missing the great sadness of this story, the struggle that he undertook not only with society but, more intimately, with himself. 

Those who knew Eastman well all speak of this waste of potential, the fact that he succumbed to his demons and drifted away—of his own volition—from what was a very promising career. This is a story of refusal of society’s categories, and there’s something brave and daring about it. But it’s also a story of fragility, deterioration, addiction, and, perhaps, of mental illness. Part of Eastman’s difficulty, to be sure, was that the avant-garde, particularly in classical music, was always defined as always already not-black, as the cultural theorist Fred Moten has argued. But this was not Eastman’s only source of difficulty.

When I was asked to speak at the School of Visual Arts’ Symposium on Arts, Politics, and Narrative, the art critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie told me she wanted me to discuss “the image.” I haven’t been in school for some time, so I wasn’t sure what “the image,” singular, was. We live in a society of images, not of a single image. But I think I see what she means. There are certain images that hold us captive, that freeze the gaze, that inspire or horrify us, to the point where we can’t see that there are other, related images that would permit us to see a more illuminating montage—or, to use a different metaphor, that would open up the music of an artist’s life to a richer and more complex counterpoint. So, rather than present one of the usual images of Eastman in concert, I have chosen to show some photographs that his former lover, Donald W. Burkhart, sent me. They show a relaxed young man on vacation who is neither performing nor posturing, and I find them touching in their ordinariness. 

Why is there this need for a mythical Eastman, or a prophetic James Baldwin, or an omniscient Hannah Arendt? I sense that those of us who are horrified by the direction of our politics are seeking heroes, people who not only saw far in advance of their societies, but who also somehow lived in advance of them, as if a fully emancipated life were possible in an unfree society. But in this search for superheroes, rather than people, I fear that we’re not doing them much justice. It would be better, I believe, to record their struggles, not on the stage of history but within history—within the politics of their time, and within their own efforts to define themselves, to find their voices, and to move from thought to expression, which is a struggle for all of us, not just artists. And in this, let us remember that, as Cecil Taylor beautifully put it, people are all, at some level, dark to themselves. 

Adapted from a lecture given at the School of Visual Arts, New York City in May 2018.

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World Cup 2018: Waiting for ‘Golazo!’

Dimitri Lundt/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesThe Belgian goalkeeper Filip De Wilde despairing at Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s equalizing goal for Mexico in the 1998 World Cup

This is the third in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup.


I was supposed to have gone to Gonzalo and Pia’s house, in Chimalistac, a southern neighborhood of Mexico City, to watch the Mexico-Belgium 1998 World Cup match. I must have gotten got caught up in something else; I didn’t care much about “soccer.” In high school, in Massachusetts, I’d played football, and was a Red Sox fan. When I left my apartment in the Condesa at the start of the second half, Mexico, El Tri—as the national team is called, for the tricolor flag—was losing, 2-0. It was a sunny Sunday, the sidewalks and streets empty because everybody was inside watching the match. I caught a taxi, one of those green VW Beetles with the front passenger seat taken out. On the lowered door of the glove compartment sat a battery-operated black-and-white TV. The driver asked me to hold the antennae out the window.

About ten minutes had passed when a Mexican player was fouled in the goal area. On the Viaducto Miguel Alemán, the driver pulled over. García Aspe drove the penalty kick into the net, and now it was 2-1. Seven minutes later, still on the expressway, Jesús Arellano, a player known as “El Cabrito” (Little Goat), sent a long crossing pass to Ramón Ramírez, who deftly sent a lateral pass back across the Belgian goal area to Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who came flying in from the right, legs thrust forward almost as if in an airborne baseball slide. The ball shot off Cuau’s left foot into the net for a spectacular goal—golazo!—that tied the game.

At that instant, a passion for Mexican futbol, for El Tri, entered me like a lightning bolt through that antennae held out the window, pointed up at that legendary Mexico City sky.

“You won’t believe what you missed!” exclaimed Gonzalo when I arrived, with twenty or so minutes of the match still remaining. Gonzalo and Pia’s parents were famous writers, Gabriel García Márquez and Salvador Elizondo. In front of the TV, Gonzalo and Pia’s ten-year-old son, Mateo, was bouncing up and down chanting, “If Mexico wins, I promise to read Moby-Dick!

Mexico qualified for the next round of sixteen, but lost 2-1 to Germany. In every World Cup since 1994, Mexico has emerged from the group stage to play a fourth match, and has lost every time. Of the five countries that have most often qualified for the World Cup, only Mexico has never won the championship; it’s never even reached the finals. But getting to that fifth match, the round of eight, has become the Holy Grail of Mexican fut. Along the way, El Tri also forged an identity as a team that wages improbable comebacks and enthralling, hectic World Cup matches, challenging superior teams, often losing gloriously, and sometimes flopping against lesser ones.

Only certain Red Sox losses have caused me such pain as Mexico’s extra-time 2-1 loss to Argentina—in the round of sixteen, of course—the most thrilling match of that 2006 World Cup. Maybe that was when I realized that experiencing the emotional rollercoaster and inevitable anguish of being a Red Sox fan was just like being a fan of El Tri. Did I become an ardent fan of la Selección Mexicana because the Red Sox had made me an addict of that most predictably exquisite form of sports suffering: loving a team that always brought hope to an excited peak, then left you devastated? Or was I connecting to a Mexican fatalism that eschews passive acceptance for melodramatic torment.  

As someone who grew up with a split sense of national belonging, my new attachment to Mexican futbol accompanied a sense of Mexican belonging that has steadily deepened over the last two decades. But does Mexico itself raise expectations and then crash into disillusion, repeatedly, as El Tri does? In rather obvious political ways, it does. The capital, Mexico City, enthralls one with its hustling, its scrapping, and its creative energies, chaotic and inspiring; and so long as one doesn’t unrealistically idealize it, the city doesn’t truly disappoint. But as if it’s something like Mexico’s digestive system, the city does channel the country’s tragedies—after forty-three school students were murdered in Iguala in 2014, hundreds of thousands filled the streets in Mexico City, in a series of marches of rage and grief that began to transform the country politically.

One of the most piercing expressions of Mexican-ness I’ve ever experienced was in the early morning hours in a bar in Brooklyn, watching Mexico play the USA in the round of sixteen, in Jeonju Stadium in 2002. I’ll never forget the excitement, pride, and optimism of all those young male Mexicans, mostly restaurant workers, who crowded into that bar, nursing cheap draught beers, to watch a game that Mexico was supposed to win but lost miserably, and how furtively they slipped out the door before the match had ended, while preppy gringo soccer fans celebrated by treating one another to a round of Grey Goose shots. Man, was that depressing. 

In 2015, the Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio became Mexico’s twelfth head coach in nine years. I liked him because of his history: he’d played for the University of New Haven and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a degree in exercise science; he got his start coaching a Staten Island team, and went on to be a successful head coach in Colombia. Osorio’s thoughtful, respectful demeanor, along with his curriculum vitae and propensity for strategic experimenting, earned him the nickname “El Profe.” In forty-seven matches with El Tri, he’s never fielded the same starting line-up twice, something that drives Mexican TV futbol commentators, and most fans, crazy, but which has helped to win the loyalty of his athletes, who say El Profe’s style keeps everyone motivated. The results of his tenure have been mixed, but just the right side of desultory. In the 2016 Copa America, Mexico was humiliated by Chile 7-0, a traumatic defeat. Still, El Tri easily finished at the head of its World Cup qualifying round, and came through with memorable victories against the USA, in Columbus, Ohio, and Pasadena, California—two grueling, epic matches played in atmospheres inevitably freighted with Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric. 

Back then, I was still kind of hoping Mexico wouldn’t do well in the 2018 World Cup. What if reaching that coveted fifth match, in the round of eight, enflamed nationalist sentiment and helped the ruling PRI do better in this summer’s coming election? But under Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI presidency, the country’s situation has become so dire, and the PRI and the political establishment have become so unpopular, that for once it’s clear that the World Cup isn’t going to distract from more urgent realities, no matter how well El Tri performs. An election promising a historic political realignment seems to be in the offing; no matter how much the establishment, widely regarded as corrupt and complicit in the country’s crisis, resorts to scare tactics, the overwhelmingly poor majority of the population seems uncommonly determined to give the one politician who seems authentically on their side, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often known by his initials simply as “AMLO,” a chance to govern. Whether AMLO will deliver radical change is another matter: to broaden their base, he and his Morena party have made some unsavory alliances—notably, with a dubious opportunist who is running for governor of the state of Morelos, none other than that futbol immortal of the 1998 golazo against Belgium, Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

When listening to the scorn heaped on Osorio by the PRI-like futbol establishment media, it’s tempting to compare him to AMLO. Osorio has this in his favor: this is supposed to be the most talented national team Mexico has ever sent to a World Cup, including the explosive striker, Hirving Lozano, known to fans as “El Chucky,” who has just had a breakthrough season with the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. Following a scoreless tie in a friendly against Wales, though, Osorio was excoriated by fut’s TV pundits. I kept hearing the same crack about El Profe: “I guess he’s a genius not understood by us commentators.” And when El Tri recently beat Scotland at the Estadio Azteca by the narrow margin of 1-0, the home team was booed off, with chants of “Osorio out.” As a friend, who is a US newspaper correspondent, remarked to me: “This is so Mexico, so much talent and energy, but they just can’t do the right thing.” Yet the players’ loyalty to their coach seems unshaken. They seem confident, as if they share a secret.  

I feel that maybe better times are coming. It’s what my antennae tell me.

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World Cup 2018: Brazil’s Respite from Reality

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesA boy from Santa Marta favela with his Panini World Cup sticker book, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2014

This is the second in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup.


Every four years, Brazil is transformed by a sportive Midas touch that turns everything into apolitical emptiness. It sweeps our country with a force almost too strong to resist.

We puff up our chests and recall that we are the only country that has attended every single FIFA World Cup since its beginning in 1930 (a distinction we have held alone since 1950, when Romania did not enter the competition and France withdrew). We have also won the championship five times. And although Brazil has never gotten a Nobel prize—just three Ig Nobels and too many Darwin Awards—at least on the soccer field we can proudly face first-world countries such as England, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. The nation is now facing a major political and economic crisis with no end in sight, but suddenly, this became only a minor nuisance. It’s like a collective shout of substitution: out go social equality, political stability, and true democracy; in come Pelé, Ronaldo, and Neymar to let us brag to the rest of the world.

So we celebrate as loudly as we can.

We paint our streets in yellow and green and decorate them with long strings of tiny paper flags. We buy pernicious plastic horns, metallic wigs, silly hats, yoyos, napkins, balloons, foam spray, pom-poms, and even an angry yellow canary costume. We take part in sweepstakes and lose serious money trying to predict the results of Morocco vs. Iran. On days of matches involving the national team, people leave work early, streets empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the crime rate also goes down, with a welcome day off for delinquents.

Months before the main event, the World Cup insanity kicks off with the arrival of a new edition of the championship sticker album: according to Panini, the Italian company that makes the booklet, Brazil is its biggest market, with twice as many sales as in Germany. A local factory produces 8 million envelopes a day for distribution at newsstands. In public squares and shopping malls, children and adults alike engage in feverish trading of stickers of all the players in the tournament, and many collectors resort to the “black market” to get their favorites. (The special team badges “shiny” stickers are the most desired.) Beyond buying and swapping stickers, it is also possible to win them in traditional matches of bafo, in which a player has to slap a stack of stickers turned face down, and if he manages to turn over one or more of them, he can claim those and add them to his cache. It takes a lot of wrist training to master the technique and one can easily lose one’s entire hand to a dexterous eight-year-old.

In 2014, thieves stole 300,000 stickers in a dramatic heist of a Panini delivery truck in Rio de Janeiro. Four years before that, five burglars broke into a Santo André distribution center, held up a security guard, and plundered 135,000 stickers. Today, the whole operation runs with escorts of private security guards and federal highway police. That’s how seriously we take the World Cup.

All this quadrennial euphoria, amusing as it is, leaves little time for people to concentrate on other issues, such as the huge recent FIFA corruption scandals, or the fact that hosting the championship is bound to be an economic and social failure for the host nation’s population, especially in countries with struggling economies like Russia and Brazil. Brazil, in particular, has barely begun to recover from the burdens of hosting both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics—and here we are again, painting our nails in yellow and green to show our support for the mythological heroes of the national team.

Brazil is currently immersed in a huge economic and political crisis, to the extent that nobody knows for sure if the scheduled presidential elections will even take place this year. The clear frontrunner in opinion polls, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president and legendary labor leader, was recently convicted on a graft charge, and in second place is a far-right politician, a former military officer with a long history of making derogatory remarks about women, blacks, and homosexuals. For months now, there has been speculation about the looming threat of a military coup. The incumbent president, Michel Temer, who took over the post after a controversial process of impeachment against a democratically-elected head of state, has an approval rating of 3 percent—lower, almost, than the poll’s margin of error.

Approaching the start of the tournament, Brazil’s media outlets have been more and more dominated by sports news. Suddenly, the new hot topics are the World Cup Muse, a supposedly clairvoyant cat with a talent for predicting game outcomes, and a fanatic who covered his VW beetle with 15,000 soccer stickers. We also get endless talk shows about everything from the Brazilian goalkeeper’s hairdresser to the probable starting lineup (composed almost entirely of Europe-based players).

For the first time in years, people are confident about the squad. Commentators love Brazil’s coach, Tite, as well as the team’s biggest star, Neymar. Besides our other world-class players, we can always count on the blessed presence of Jesus—the forward Gabriel Jesus. There is a growing sense of the possibility of redemption by avenging that 7-1 home defeat against Germany in the semifinals of the last World Cup.

But most of the sports coverage provides an illusion of living in an extraterrestrial bubble (even when the World Cup was on our own turf). Criticizing the event in any way is treated as incomprehensible or heretical, or even as tantamount to rooting against the national interest. That’s how Brazilians carry on, with a totally dissociative attitude that isolates sports and politics, as if the only option in the circumstances were to be “pro” or “con” soccer itself.

So far, the run-up to this World Cup has strayed little from the usual. That’s why, whether Brazil succeeds or fails in Russia, the outcome will be equally permeated with an old bittersweet flavor: the feeling that we are second-class citizens of the world trying to look the other way, in the hope that the euphoria of the next four weeks might extend to months or years, maybe a whole lifetime.

“I want to live in a World Cup,” my brother said a while ago. That’s the spirit.

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How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy

Andia/UIG via Getty ImagesKurdish women of the Kobani canton in Rojava marching in a demonstration calling for the release of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, Syria, 2015

One mild spring day in Vermont in April 2004, my father, the historian and philosopher Murray Bookchin, was chatting with me, as we did almost daily. We’d talk about everything and everyone—friends, family, and thinkers from Karl Marx and Karl Polanyi (whom he admired) to then-president George W. Bush (whom he did not) and George Smiley, the fictional John Le Carré character whom he identified with and was fond of. He paused, and out of the blue disclosed what seemed an odd piece of news: “Apparently,” he said, “the Kurds have been reading my work and are trying to implement my ideas.” He said it so casually and off-handedly that it was as if he didn’t quite believe it himself.  

My father, eighty-three years old at the time, had spent six decades writing hundreds of articles and twenty-four books articulating an anticapitalist vision of an ecological, democratic, egalitarian society that would eliminate the domination of human by human, and bring humanity into harmony with the natural world, a body of ideas he called “social ecology.” Although his work was well-known within anarchist and libertarian left circles, his was hardly a household name.

Unexpectedly, that week, he had received a letter from an intermediary writing on behalf of the jailed Kurdish activist Abdullah Öcalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As its co-founder, sole theoretician, and undisputed leader, Öcalan had a larger-than-life reputation—but nothing about his ideology seemed in any way to resemble my father’s.

Founded in 1978 as a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization, the PKK had for thirty years been waging an insurgent war on behalf of the roughly 15 million Kurds living in Turkey who have suffered a long history of violence. For decades, Turkey has prohibited Kurds from speaking their own language, wearing customary dress, using Kurdish names, teaching the Kurdish language in schools, or even playing Kurdish music. Kurds have routinely been arrested and tortured for any expression of their cultural identity or opposition to Turkey’s one-flag, one-people, one-nation ideology, which originated in the early twentieth century, found full expression in Kemalism, and has endured under the authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist party. 

Like other national liberation movements of the 1970s, the PKK was originally founded to win an independent Kurdish state. It sought to unite the Kurds, whose homeland of five millennia, a swath of land known as Kurdistan, had been arbitrarily parceled out between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria in the aftermath of World War I. In the decades that followed, it has often seemed as if these four countries were competing for the distinction of which could inflict more suffering on its Kurdish population. The spasmodic, pogrom-like violence to which these “new” nation states have subjected Kurds has included chemical gassings, bombings, forced relocations, ecological devastation, and the razing of entire villages. In the decades since 1984, when the PKK initiated an armed struggle, some 40,000 people have been killed, most of whom have been Kurds. For all those years of struggle, Öcalan has been the PKK’s ideological and organizational leader.

Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum PhotosThe Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan at a PKK training camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 1991

In 1999, Öcalan was captured in Kenya after he had been forced out of Syria, where he’d lived for twenty years. Transported to the remote Turkish island of Imrali, in the inland Sea of Marmara, Öcalan was tried and convicted on treason charges. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because Turkey was then trying to enter the European Union, which opposes capital punishment. Since then, Öcalan has been confined to a prison cell on Imrali, watched over by hundreds of guards, with few, if any, other prisoners on the island. Despite his isolation—he has not been seen since April 2016, and has been denied access to his attorneys since 2011—Öcalan remains the guiding light of the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey and Syria, and for its many supporters in the Kurdish diaspora.

When Öcalan’s intermediary, a German translator named Reimar Heider, wrote to my father in 2004, Heider told him that the Kurdish leader had been reading Turkish translations of my father’s books in prison and considered himself a “good student” of my father’s. Indeed, Heider went on:

He has rebuilt his political strategy around the vision of a “democratic-ecological-society” and developed a model to build up a civil society in Kurdistan and the Middle East… He has recommended Bookchin’s books to every mayor in all Kurdish cities and wanted everybody to read them.

It turned out that following his arrest, Öcalan was given access to hundreds of books, including Turkish translations of numerous historical and philosophical texts from the West. He was granted these books as he tried to devise a legal strategy for his own defense during his treason trial and subsequent appeals: he aimed to explain his actions as a revolutionary by examining the Turkish-Kurdish conflict over the twentieth century within a comprehensive analysis of the development of the nation-state, beginning in ancient Mesopotamia. Öcalan began writing what would become a multi-volume history, in which he sought to propose a democratic solution to the “Kurdish Question” that would not only free the Kurdish people but also establish a harmonious relationship between Turks and Kurds and, indeed, among all peoples of the Middle East. 

During the course of this work, Öcalan was influenced by a number of thinkers, including Ferdinand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, Maria Mies, and Michel Foucault. In addition, Öcalan had listened to, and nurtured, the voices of a generation of Kurdish women led by Sakine Cansiz, a PKK co-founder and a legendary figure who survived years of unspeakable torture in Turkish prisons in the 1980s and was encouraged by Öcalan to write her memoirs. (Cansiz was assassinated by a Turkish agent in Paris in 2013, along with two other Kurdish female activists.) Cansiz influenced hundreds of Kurdish women in prison and PKK training camps, including the recently arrested co-mayor of the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Gültan Kişanak, who had also been tortured in prison in the 1980s. Impressed by the sacrifice and independence of women like these, Öcalan had already begun, in the 1990s, to initiate a dramatic transition in the PKK from a militant, patriarchal organization bent on seizing state power along Marxist-Leninist lines to an organization that emphasized feminist values and sought a form of socialism very different from that associated with the former Soviet Union. Yet many of the defining features of the political philosophy that Öcalan began to espouse in the 2000s are firmly rooted on my father’s idea of social ecology and its political practice: “libertarian municipalism” or “Communalism.”

My father saw ecological problems as inherently social problems—of hierarchy and domination—that had to be solved in order to address the environmental crisis. “Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced,” he wrote, “is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy.” Social change, he insisted, would have to address capitalism’s plundering of the human spirit and the environment by dismantling hierarchical human relationships and decentralizing society so that grassroots democratic forms of organization can flourish. This social theory of Bookchin’s, absorbed and amplified by Öcalan under the name “democratic confederalism,” is now guiding millions of Kurds in their quest to build a non-hierarchical society and local council-based democracy.

As the Syrian civil war enters its eighth year, most Westerners are familiar with images of the Kalashnikov-toting men and women of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known respectively as the YPG, which is mostly male, and the YPJ, the all-female units. These militias have fought and died by the thousands across the battlefields of Syria as the leading units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the multi-ethnic force supported by the United States in the campaign against ISIS. Less often acknowledged is what they are fighting for: the chance to achieve not only political self-determination but also a new form of direct democracy in which every member of the community has an equal say in the popular assemblies that address the issues of their neighborhoods and towns—that is, democracy without a central state.

Because of repression in Turkey, these ideas have come to their fullest fruition in the historically Kurdish northeast of Syria. In 2012, the Syrian government troops of President Bashar al-Assad withdrew from this region to concentrate on fighting insurgents elsewhere. The Syrian Kurds had been watching their brethren implement some of Öcalan’s ideas in largely Kurdish towns and cities like Diyarbakir, across the border in southeastern Turkey; and they had been preparing for their chance. They began to put the same ideas into practice in three “cantons” in Syria, Cizre, Kobani, and Afrin, which are home to an estimated 4.6 million people, including 2 million Syrian Kurds, as well as smaller populations of Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, and other ethnic minorities. In these cantons, multi-ethnic neighborhood assemblies hold sway, and the prevailing ethos emphasizes an equal division of power between women and men, a non-hierarchical, non-sectarian, and distinctly ecological outlook, and a cooperative economy built on anticapitalist principles. The people of these cantons have made these reforms in the face of great challenges, which include a doubling of the population in the form of war refugees from other parts of Syria, and embargoes on food and supplies from Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan to the East, where the Kurdish tribal leader Masoud Barzani has for more than a decade overseen a capitalist statelet that depends on Turkey for trade.

In 2014, the three cantons established their autonomy as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which became commonly known as Rojava, the Kurdish word for “West” (Syria being the most western portion of greater Kurdistan). Though still known informally as Rojava, the Kurds officially dropped the name in 2016, in recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the region and of their commitment to freedom for all, not just the Kurdish people. The Democratic Federation (or DFNS) is founded on a document called the “Charter of the Social Contract,” whose Preamble declares the aspiration to build “a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs.” It also “recognizes Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace”—a formal renunciation by Syrian Kurds of the idea of a separate state for their people. Instead, they envisage a federated system of self-determining municipalities.

In the ninety-six articles that follow, the Contract guarantees all ethnic communities the right to teach and be taught in their own languages, abolishes the death penalty and ratifies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar conventions. It requires public institutions to work toward the complete elimination of gender discrimination, and requires by law that women make up at least 40 percent of every electoral body and that they, and ethnic minorities, serve as co-chairs at all levels of government administration. The Social Contract also promotes a philosophy of ecological stewardship that guides all decisions about town-planning, economics, and agriculture, and runs all industries, where possible, according to collective principles. The document even guarantees political rights to teenagers.

Among the many challenges the Democratic Federation faces is that its experiment is in a war zone. The town of Kobani and surrounding area were heavily damaged by US airstrikes against ISIS before the YPG and YPJ defeated the jihadist militia there after a six-month battle in 2014. The US and its allies supply military aid to the SDF but no humanitarian aid, and the reconstruction of Kobani, and many other parts of the Federation devastated by war, has been very slow. While the utopian aspects of Rojava have attracted a couple of hundred international civil volunteers who are working on environmental waste issues and planting 50,000 saplings in an effort to “make Rojava green again,” the region suffers from a water shortage inflicted by Turkey, which has built enormous dams that have deliberately slowed the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to a trickle, as well as flooded historic settlements on the Turkish side of the border.

Against the backdrop of an entire society mobilized for the war effort, there have been contested complaints of child soldiers, uprooted Arab villagers, and other human rights violations in the Kurdish-controlled areas. Internally, there is the challenge of resisting the ideological rigidity that often befalls movements with a charismatic spokesperson when elites claim the leader’s mantle at the expense of dissenting views. Perhaps most crucially, it remains to be seen whether Turkey, which has stated its desire to obliterate the Rojava project, will be brought to heel or given the green light by some combination of the three world powers—Russia, Iran, and the US—vying to exert control over Syria. The Social Contract’s intention, however, is clear—to build a grassroots-based, democratic, decentralized society of the kind my father and Abdullah Öcalan both envisioned.

The Murray Bookchin TrustMurray Bookchin, circa 1950s

Born in the Bronx in 1921, Murray Bookchin’s earliest influence was his grandmother Zeitel, a Russian revolutionary who emigrated to the US in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. As my father later described the struggles of his grandmother and her comrades to me:

Under these red flags, dreaming of human emancipation, they had the ideal of a classless society, free of exploitation, and that was their myth, vision, and their hope. Also living in this pre-industrial world where families were basically extended families, with mutual sense of trust, you had an intense community life marked by mutual aid, marked by a strong cultural sensibility, marked by a radical cultural vision.

The Bookchins had struggles of their own. My father’s mother had been abandoned by her husband when Murray was a young boy; after his grandmother’s death, when he was nine, they were often impoverished. Around the same time, in 1930, he became a member of the Young Pioneers of America, a Communist youth organization. At thirteen, he was “co-opted” into the Young Communist League. Even the youngest party members “were treated like we were adults,” he recalled. They were expected to have read The Communist Manifesto and many other texts; they were sent into the streets to sell the party paper; they supported labor union efforts. The Great Depression intensified my father’s “class consciousness” and his commitment to social change—more than once, he and his mother were evicted from apartments in the Bronx. As a young radical, he honed his oratory skills in the debating crucible of Crotona Park. My father later recalled that time in the 1930s as “a deeply tumultuous period”:

It’s very difficult to give you any idea of the extent to which almost every day one felt something new, [that] something politically exciting and in a sense dangerous was happening. For example, we had continuous street corner meetings and I would go from one street corner meeting with my friends to another. And finally I began to actually speak from what you’d call soap boxes today. In the meantime I tried to earn my livelihood selling newspapers and carrying ice cream on my back in Crotona Park in a huge kind of insulated box—being chased by the police, incidentally, because it was illegal in those days to sell ice cream—that was the privilege mainly of little stands and concessions that the park department gave to people. So even from the age of thirteen and fourteen, as a worker, I began to earn my own bread and cheese.

Though rigorously schooled in the finer points of Marxist theory by the Communist Party, he was never bound by orthodoxies; leaving the Communist Party after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he took a turn first as a Trotskyist, and then became an anarchist—which is what he remained for nearly four decades between the 1960s and 1990s. Eventually, he cast aside that term, also, arguing that anarchism too easily devolved into a politics that focused on the personal exercise of freedom at the expense of the hard work it takes to build political institutions capable of achieving lasting social change. 

My father never attended college, and as an autodidact, he perhaps never felt confined by any particular lane of intellectual enquiry. His reading ranged widely and deeply, from subjects like biology and physics to natural history and philosophy. His experience of industrial work—commuting to Bayonne, New Jersey, to pour steel in a hot foundry—only confirmed his sympathy for the socialist project. Later, though, his stint as a union organizer for the United Electrical Workers taught him that the American proletariat, concerned as it was with bread-and-butter issues and piecemeal reforms, was unlikely to be the revolutionary agent Marx had predicted. He began to take issue with other tenets of Marxism, including its emphasis on centralized state authority and its insistence on the “inexorability of social laws.”

It had also become clear to him by the late 1940s and early 1950s that capitalist development was in profound tension with the natural world. Air and water pollution, radiation, the problem of pesticide residues in food, and the impact on cities of imperious urban planners like Robert Moses called for, he argued, a re-evaluation of the effects of capitalism that took account of environmental as well as economic concerns.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bookchin was discussing ecological devastation as a symptom of deeply entrenched social problems, ideas he elaborated in a ground-breaking 1964 essay called “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” which established ecology as a political concept and made saving the environment an integral part of the project of social transformation. In contrast to Marx, who believed that it was the scarcities of nature that led to human subjugation, Bookchin argued that the notion of dominating nature was preceded by, and stemmed from, the domination of human by human and that only by eliminating social hierarchies—of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and status—could we begin to solve the environmental crisis. He argued, against Marx, that true freedom would not be realized merely by eliminating class society; it entailed the elimination of all forms of domination. “Tragically,” he would later observe, “Marxism virtually silenced all earlier revolutionary voices for more than a century and held history itself in the icy grip of a remarkably bourgeois theory of development based on the domination of nature and the centralization of power.”  

My father first began to elaborate these ideas in a series of articles in the mid-1960s with titles like “Post-Scarcity Anarchism,” “Toward a Liberatory Technology,” and “Listen, Marxist!”—essays that guided a young generation of antiwar activists toward a deeper understanding of the social ills that they felt demanded a new social order. During this period, he debated with and influenced many significant figures on the left, from Eldridge Cleaver and Daniel Cohn-Bendit to Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord. He pressed the French revolutionaries of the May 1968 events not to succumb to the efforts of the Communist Party to corral the student movement; he pushed Black Panther Party leaders like Cleaver and Huey Newton to abandon their adherence to the Maoist dogma that revolutions are made by disciplined cadres guided by a centralized leadership; and he met with Marcuse to urge the veteran Marxist critical theorist to embrace a deeper ecological awareness.

Over the years, some of Bookchin’s theories about affinity groups, popular assemblies, eco-feminism, grassroots democracy, and the need to eliminate hierarchy were taken up by the antinuclear campaign, antiglobalization activists, and eventually the Occupy movement. These groups incorporated my father’s ideas—often unaware of their origin, perhaps—because they offered ways of acting and organizing that prefigured the social change they sought. By the 1980s, his work was influencing Green movements in Europe. Today, a “municipalism” movement based on his ideas is gaining momentum in cities around the world. Before Rojava, though, Murray Bookchin’s name was rarely mentioned in mainstream news reporting.

My father moved from New York’s Lower East Side to Vermont in 1971. He was fifty years old. He and Beatrice, my mother, had divorced after twelve years of marriage, but he continued to live with her for many years and she remained his political comrade and confidante for the rest of his life. In Vermont, he became active in the antinuclear movement, while she led the opposition to the efforts of Burlington’s then-mayor, Bernie Sanders, to put a huge commercial development on the Burlington waterfront. Together, my parents started the Burlington Greens, one of the first municipalist movements in the US. And it was in their Burlington home that he wrote his magnum opus, The Ecology of Freedom, published in 1982 and translated into Turkish twelve years later.

In it, my father traced the emergence of hierarchy from prehistoric times to the present, examining the interaction between what he called the “legacy of domination” and the “legacy of freedom” in human history. Alongside the trend of human civilization to become more socially stratified, which created vast inequalities and gave nation-states undue power, he argued, there existed a rich tradition of freedom, from its first appearance as a word in Sumerian cuneiform tablets, to its use by philosophers like Augustine and its appearance in the anti-statist, radical utopian thought of thinkers like Charles Fourier. That legacy of freedom provides a parallel vision of humanity’s potential development that challenges the accepted wisdom of Marx that the state and capitalism were “historically necessary” for the advancement of society toward socialism. Not only were they unnecessary, my father argued, but the classic Marxian belief in the “progressive” historical role of capitalism had hindered the formation of a truly libertarian left.

Öcalan read The Ecology of Freedom, and agreed with its analysis. In his own book In Defense of the People, published in German in 2010 (forthcoming in English), Öcalan wrote:

The development of authority and hierarchy even before the class society emerged is a significant turning point in history. No law of nature requires natural societies to develop into hierarchical state-based societies. At most we might say there might be a tendency. The Marxist belief that class society is an inevitability is a big mistake.

Illustrating the examples of egalitarianism and mutual aid that characterized early societies, my father argued that capitalism was not the inevitable end-product of human civilization. He suggested that a recovery of the impulses toward cooperation, mutual aid, and ecological sustainability could be achieved in a modern society by building a moral, ecological economy based on human needs, fostering technologies that can decentralize resources, such as solar and wind power, and building grassroots democratic assemblies that empower people at a local level.

My father’s emphasis on hierarchy became a signature aspect of Öcalan’s efforts to redefine the Kurdish problem. In The Roots of Civilization, Öcalan’s first published volume of prison writings, he, too, traced the history of early communitarian societies and the transition to capitalism. Like Bookchin, he celebrated the formation of early societies in greater Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization and birthplace of art, written language, and agriculture. He reminded us that the powerful kinship ties that remain a fixture of Kurdish family life—the traditional relationships of extended families, and folk culture—can provide a foundation for a new ethical society that melds the best aspects of Enlightenment values with a communal and ecological sensibility. 

Öcalan goes further than Bookchin in the significance he places on patriarchy. My father had examined how hierarchies originated from the need of the elders in society to preserve their power as they aged by institutionalizing their status in the form of shamans, and later priests—a process that included the domination of women by men. Öcalan, though, sees patriarchy as a defining characteristic of human civilization. “The 5,000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of woman,” he wrote in a pamphlet titled “Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution” (published in English in 2013). “The depth of woman’s enslavement and the intentional masking of this fact is thus closely linked to the rise within a society of hierarchical and statist power.” Undoing these entrenched institutional and psychological relationships of power will, in Öcalan’s view, require a new vision of society—and a profound personal reckoning on the part of men.

Öcalan’s interest in women’s liberation preceded his time in Imrali, and was never simply a theoretical matter. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kurdish women from both Syria and Turkey, where they were suffering particularly harsh repression at the hands of the Turkish state, were joining the PKK in growing numbers. Leaving their villages and towns to travel to the PKK training camps in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, these women helped to swell the ranks of PKK fighters to 15,000 by 1994, with women comprising an estimated one third of the force. In keeping with the PKK’s stress on study and education, these women, while they trained as guerrillas, also read feminist and other radical texts. Öcalan, who had already been reassessing the problem of the “dominant male” personality in the PKK, supported their demands for equal rights, a separate militia organization, and their own institutions. As Meredith Tax explains in her recent book A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, the creation of all-female PKK units was crucial to “giving women the confidence and leadership experience to make the leap to a fully separate women’s army.” 

Like Bookchin years earlier, Öcalan had also become disillusioned with state socialism. “Do not look at the Soviet Union as the God of Socialism and the last God at that,” he told an interviewer in 1991. “The dream of a socialist utopia is not just Marxist-Leninist. It is as old as humanity.” Increasingly persuaded that the state itself was the problem, he began to reframe his movement’s goal not as a Kurdish nation but as an autonomous, self-ruled democratic entity within a federation that gave similar autonomy to all its subject groups—a type of political system very different from any that now exists in the Middle East or almost anywhere.

“The nation-state makes us less than human,” Bookchin wrote in his 1985 essay “Rethinking Ethics, Nature and Society.” “It towers over us, cajoles us, disempowers us, bilks us of our substance, humiliates us—and often kills us in its imperialist adventures… We are the nation-state’s victims, not its constituents—not only physically and psychologically but also ideologically.” Öcalan came to share this view; in 2005, he issued a “Declaration” that “the political root of the democratic nation solution is the democratic confederalism of civil society, which is not state.” Rather, it must be based on the “communal unit,” an ecological, social, and economic construction that does not “aim to make profit” but rather meet the collectively determined needs of the people living there. The document served as a vision that he hoped would be embraced by all of Kurdistan—including the 6 million Kurds in Iran and a similar number in Iraq.

Here, Öcalan echoed my father’s program in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (later titled Urbanization Without Cities), which Öcalan had read in prison and recommended to the mayors of Bakur in southeast Turkey. In this volume, my father traced the history of the urban megalopolis, from Athens to the Paris Commune and beyond, in an effort to “redeem the city, to visualize it not as a threat to the environment but as a uniquely human, ethical, and ecological community” that could be reclaimed as the locus of a new politics of assembly democracy—an “art in which every citizen is fully aware of the fact that his or her community entrusts its destiny to his or her moral probity and rationality.” “The city,” he wrote, must be “conceived as a new kind of ethical union, a humanly-scaled form of personal empowerment, a participatory, even ecological system of decision-making, and a distinctive source of civic culture.” And he argued that by practicing a radical municipal-based politics, people can, in effect, create a new democratic society within the shell of the old, wresting back control from the central state.

These “Communalist” ideas have been put into practice in the cities and towns of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. An elaborate system of council democracy starts at the “commune” level (settlements of between thirty and four hundred families). The commune sends delegates to the neighborhood or village council, which in turn sends delegates to the district (or city) level and ultimately to the region-wide assemblies. Citizens serve on committees for health, the environment, defense, women, the economy, politics, justice, and ideology. Everyone is entitled to a say. And in keeping with Öcalan’s ideas on matters relating to women, the women’s councils have the power to override decisions made by other councils when the matter specifically concerns a women’s interests.

Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty ImagesKurdish fighters of the YPG, in the village of Heras near Rojava’s front-line against ISIS, Syria, 2014

Although the PKK remains the leading opposition force for most Kurds who oppose the policies of President Erdoğan of Turkey, there have been divisions within the movement, notably in the mid-2000s when Öcalan began to implement democratic confederalism in earnest. Yet it is a testament to the character of his leadership, which has endured nearly two decades of imprisonment, that a great majority of Kurdish people have followed the path he laid out. Despite all this, the PKK remains on terrorist blacklists maintained by the United States and the European Union, and the Western media inexplicably persist in calling Öcalan and the PKK “Marxist-Leninist” more than a decade after that ideology was formally renounced, both in practice and in thousands of pages of Öcalan’s writings.

By the time of Turkey’s June 2015 election, the PKK had declared a unilateral ceasefire and the evidence of its commitment to grassroots democracy was in full bloom in the Kurdish cities and towns of southeastern Turkey, where women were working as co-mayors and serving in all areas of city administration. In the election, the Kurdish-led HDP party won 13 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament. Summarily, Erdoğan halted the peace negotiations that had begun with Öcalan in 2013 and launched a sustained assault on the Kurdish region. The military campaign and PKK resistance led to the deaths of hundreds of people, with thousands more imprisoned—among them, Selahattin Demirtaş, the charismatic leader of the HDP who is now running for president from his prison cell in the snap election called by Erdoğan for June 24.

On May 24, the Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, which was established in 1979 to continue the work of the Russell Tribunal (which had investigated war crimes in Vietnam), determined that the PKK was not a terrorist group but a combatant in a “non-international armed conflict,” and declared Erdoğan personally guilty of war crimes against the Kurdish people for failing to adhere to the Geneva Conventions over an eighteen-month period between June 2015 and January 2017. In a decision announced at the European Parliament in Brussels, the tribunal also found Turkey guilty of false-flag operations, “targeted assassinations, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances,” destroying Kurdish towns and displacing as many as 300,000 civilians, and of “denying the Kurdish people its right to self-determination by imposing the Turkish identity and by repressing its participation in the political, economic and cultural life of the country.” The Tribunal urged the immediate resumption of peace negotiations with the Kurds in Turkey, and also called on Turkey to halt all military operations against the Kurds in Syria.

Turkey’s insistence that the Syrian Kurds, too, are “terrorists” because of their ideological affiliation with Öcalan has forced the US to walk a fine line—supporting the YPG and YPJ as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and denying their ties to the PKK, while maintaining that the PKK in Turkey is a terrorist group. The result has been that while US military officials vocally support the Kurds as “our best partners on the ground” in the fight against ISIS in Syria, the State Department has turned a blind eye to Erdoğan’s unrelenting human rights violations, echoing his rhetoric that the PKK must be destroyed, a policy that the Kurdish people say amounts to tacit approval of a war on all Kurds. This US policy, together with the near-silence of American and European leaders about the Turkish government’s assault against its Kurdish citizens between 2015 and 2017, may have emboldened Erdoğan to send his forces and the militias of former Free Syrian Army—including jihadists and former ISIS fighters—into the canton of Afrin in Syria on January 20. An estimated 170,000 people have since been displaced from Afrin; many are homeless and sleep in the open air. What was once a haven of peace and multiculturalism, a place where women held 50 percent of the public offices, is now under siege. There have been reports of abductions of women and girls, of Kurds’ being evicted from their homes and businesses, and of the partial imposition of Sharia law. In this, Turkey has received tacit support from the US, which has refused to stand up to Erdoğan on behalf of its Kurdish allies. The resulting devastation has been woefully under-reported by American media.

Ludwig RauchBookchin, 1991

My father died on July 30, 2006, at the age of eighty-five, about two years after Öcalan’s intermediaries had contacted him. Arthritis had made it impossible for him to sit before a computer and type, so his correspondence with Öcalan ended after the exchange of a couple of letters from each side. In his last letter, my father sent his best wishes to Öcalan and wrote:

My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Öcalan’s talents to guide them.

Upon Murray Bookchin’s death, the PKK issued a two-page statement hailing him as “one of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century.” “He introduced us to the thought of social ecology, and for that he will be remembered with gratitude by humanity,” the statement’s authors wrote. “We undertake to make Bookchin live in our struggle. We will put this promise into practice as the first society which establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.” Had my father lived to see his ideas enacted in Rojava and southeastern Turkey, he would have been profoundly moved to know that his revolutionary spirit had been reborn among a generation of the Kurdish people. He would have taken heart that Rojava was one more historical instance of the desire for freedom that he himself felt so deeply and to which he dedicated his life.

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Philip Roth (1933–2018)

Dominique NabokovPhilip Roth, Warren, Connecticut, 1979

I never had the “talk” with my parents. I had only the “book”: Portnoy’s Complaint, which one evening my mother, in a rare embarrassed flush, tossed in my direction before escaping to her bedroom, trailed by a rushed “You might get a kick out of that.” It was the old mass-market paperback—not the famous yellow-and-red jacket that blared like a siren, but the edition with maroon block text stamped over a brownish background, giving the impression that the novel had been discreetly wrapped in a brown paper bag, or perhaps brown butcher paper, like the kind that enclosed the “maddened piece of liver” Alexander Portnoy violated behind a billboard on the way to Hebrew school.

I had just been kicked out of Hebrew school, a year ahead of my bar mitzvah, and I felt an immediate intimacy with the novel’s author, Philip Roth. Though two generations separated us, I felt that he spoke directly to me or, in some mystical, incoherent sense, spoke from somewhere inside my brain. I had read novels that frightened and delighted me, made me laugh, made me question—Roth’s writing did all that, but it also elicited a spookier response. I had never before read a writer who knew me. It was a shock to discover that others felt the same way—including many who were not Jewish teenage boys.

Roth called this the “ruthless intimacy” of fiction. In a speech given at a celebration of his eightieth birthday, he argued that such intimacy can only derive from “a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life.” In many of the appreciations published since his death on May 22 there has persisted the misunderstanding that the main appeal of Roth’s fiction lies in his characters’ biographical circumstances: predominantly Jewish, middle-class, sex-obsessed, self-tormented. The posthumous criticisms commit the same error—Roth’s work is “narrow” and “tiresome” for the repetitiveness of his subject matter. (The same might be said of Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and one of Roth’s literary idols, Saul Bellow.) There’s something to this—what Hebrew school dropout doesn’t cherish the moment in “The Conversion of the Jews” when Ozzie Freedman orders his mother and his rabbi to acknowledge that “God can make a child without intercourse”? But Roth’s genius has nothing to do with biographical coincidence.

It is found, as he put it himself, in his work’s “concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities.” He saw more precisely, and therefore more honestly, than anyone else. One doesn’t have to be Jewish, male, sexually ravenous, or consumed by rage and love for one’s mother to empathize with Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh—or, for that matter, a breast.

He had an especially sharp eye for the physical detail that reveals the character of a person, a place, a time, a relationship. In Patrimony, his memoir about his father’s death, the act of holding in his hand his father’s saliva-damp dentures erases “the divide of physical estrangement that…had opened up between us once I’d stopped being a boy.” In Sabbath’s Theater, as Mickey mounts Drenka, Roth gives us the apparition of Mickey’s mother “hovering just above his shoulder, over him like the home plate umpire peering in from behind the catcher’s back”; there’s Mickey for you. In American Pastoral, Roth pauses on “a blurry line of footprints worn into the wood floor where the men stood all day at the cutting tables” of the Newark tannery where Swede Levov enjoys the daily glory of hard work done well, and where he is visited by his missing daughter’s avenger. When, at night, Swede finds himself alone in the factory, he likes “to go and stand with his shoes where the floor was worn away.” All the tragedy of American Pastoral exhales through that line.

Roth’s professional life ended in 2012, when he announced his retirement. We now enter the awkward period of reassessment, contrarian posturing, and personal revelation—with Blake Bailey’s authorized, in-progress biography looming. Roth was so anxious to protect the details of his private life from public scrutiny that he tried to deny its very existence: “writing in a room by myself is practically my whole life,” he often insisted, convincing nobody. But the whole life will soon emerge in great detail, not all of it flattering. Some time after that, the life will again recede in significance, and the work/life balance will settle in its proper proportion, which is approximately 100/0. It’s foolhardy to predict literary fate; all one can do is take a snapshot of the moment. But this fool predicts that several generations from now Roth will be considered the central American novelist of the second half of the twentieth century.

In his 1984 Paris Review interview, Roth spoke of the struggle of American writers to make sense of a culture in which “everything goes and nothing matters,” a phrase that today shrieks in neon. He defended the ambition “to write a serious book that doesn’t signal its seriousness with the rhetorical cues or thematic gravity that’s traditionally associated with seriousness.” The Plot Against America, a book that in the last year has become a modern-day counterpart to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, is a serious book in the conventional sense, announcing its seriousness in the premise; When She Was Good and The Counterlife fall in the same category. These are outliers, however. Most of his novels lacked the rhetorical cues and themes of conventional American drama, but were no less serious for it. That was the trick of his art: to be at the same time the most serious writer of his generation and the funniest.

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World Cup 2018: Hope Wins

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesThe 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Cost Rica, Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey, September 2017

This is the first in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup.


It was after the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam that Jules Rimet decided enough was enough. The French president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) had watched the sport he oversaw attract more spectators at those Games than any other event—despite, to his long-running frustration, the banning from participation of professional players. Rimet moved decisively to create a new international soccer competition, run by FIFA and called the World Cup, in which each nation taking part would field a team comprised of its foremost footballers, bar none.

A date was set, and Uruguay—a country then flush with Jazz Age wealth from grain and leather—was chosen to act as host because its government offered to pay travel costs for all involved. Rimet commissioned the sculpting of a small golden trophy for the winner. And then, placing that trophy in his bag, he boarded a boat for Montevideo, together with three of the four European nations that, in the summer of 1930, agreed to take part in a tournament whose inaugural edition, to the delight of its hosts and the lasting trauma of Argentines who crossed the muddy Río de la Plata to watch their team lose the final, was won by Uruguay.     

Rimet remained FIFA’s chief until 1954. He was a man of ideals and vision whose desire to create a global showcase for soccer that was open to professional players derived less from a love of money than his belief that involving the world’s best players in a quadrennial celebration of its best-loved sport would not only prove popular but, in an era that birthed the League of Nations, might also provide a unique way of channeling conflicts between countries toward, as he put it, “peaceful contests in the stadium.” He was right. Over the World Cup’s early decades, there were a few blips—notably a 1934 edition in Italy that Mussolini turned into an advert for fascism. But Rimet’s invention largely went from strength to strength, until the staging of the 1970 tournament in Mexico helped to transform his beloved sporting event into the outsized media spectacle we know today, awash in cash and global, not just in name, but in reach.

The FIFA men’s World Cup—whose 2018 edition kicks off today in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium with a match between its Russian hosts and Saudi Arabia—remains a potent symbol of athletic comity and joy, but it has also become one of crass consumerism and greed. Over the next thirty days, the Cup’s sixty-four games will be seen on glowing screens by more than half the world’s population. The final match alone—expected to be watched live by well over a billion of them—will make it the most popular TV show in history. Three years after FIFA’s corruption scandals tainted the game, Vladimir Putin hopes to make its crowning event a propaganda win of mighty scale.   

With the May 2015 indictment that led to the criminal convictions of several senior FIFA officials and the ousting of the organization’s president, Sepp Blatter, the US Department of Justice made plain the extent to which Jules Rimet’s heirs had sold soccer’s soul by engaging “in various criminal activities, including fraud, bribery, and money laundering, in pursuit of personal and commercial gain.” This was news to Americans, but not to close watchers of a governing body whose most influential modern president, the Brazilian potentate João Havelange, swept to power after that 1970 Cup in Mexico—the first to be broadcast live on color TV.

Popperfoto/Getty ImagesBrazilian footballer Pelé holding the Jules Rimet Trophy after Brazil’s 4-1 World Cup Final victory over Italy at the Azteca Stadium, Mexico City, June 21, 1970

Havelange absorbed how people had thrilled to the beautiful play of Brazil’s superb 1970 team, resplendent in yellow in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, and transformed a fusty Swiss nonprofit into a colossal cash cow commensurate with how well soccer plainly lent itself to a medium then transforming modern life. Havelange monetized that appeal, with his partners in business, by selling broadcasting and marketing rights to marquee events like the World Cup to “sports marketing firms” that convinced the world’s biggest companies to become such events’ “official sponsors.” He kept the wholesale price for such rights artificially low in exchange for their buyers’ providing hefty kickbacks to FIFA officials as a matter of course. He secured and maintained his own power by sharing the graft with soccer officials from across Africa and Asia and the Caribbean, where young nations, from the 1970s onward, were swelling FIFA’s ranks of voting members.

This culture of corruption, as we learned after 2015, only deepened once Havelange retired, after twenty-four years in power. Vote-buying and bribes became customary in FIFA’s Zurich offices long before the infamous day in December 2010, when the organization awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to two countries—Russia and Qatar, respectively—whose bids, it now seems clear, succeeded thanks largely to dark arts and deep pockets. Or so we can assume: FIFA’s own investigation into the integrity of that 2010 vote was rather hamstrung by the fact that, when the Russians were asked to produce records related to their bid, they insisted it had been carried out using rented computers since destroyed by their owner. Though over half the members of FIFA’s Executive Committee who took part in that vote were later banned or indicted, the Cup wasn’t going anywhere. And so it is that during Russia’s bright northern nights, this June and July, the world will watch matches staged in shiny new stadiums in Volgograd and Saint Petersburg and Saransk. It seems only apt, in a way, that the Cup has landed, in 2018, in a country that’s dominated headlines recently for other reasons, one deeply identified with illiberal nostalgia for the ancien regime, and at a time when many of the most hopeful global institutions from the twentieth century are under attack—not least from our own would-be czar in Washington, D.C.

Yesterday in Moscow, FIFA announced that the 2026 World Cup will be hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico—the first time that three countries will share the Cup. This decision was taken not by the organization’s old Executive Committee but rather after a vote involving every one of the FIFA’s 211 members. Those members’ preference for the North American bid over a competing one from Morocco may have reflected a less corrupt process than in the past. But most crucially, it reflected their enthusiasm for once again staging the tournament—soon to be expanded from thirty-two to forty-eight teams—in the world’s most lucrative market. From that Cup in eight years time, if the North American bid’s numbers are to be believed, FIFA will net a cool $11 billion.

For now, as this year’s $5 billion bonanza kicks off, the world will be watching—and Americans will join them in their millions, even though our sorry US men’s team failed to qualify. In the US, where the sports culture has long been defined by games we invented ourselves (and whose frequent pauses in play allow ad dollars to pile up), it wasn’t always like this. But in the quarter-century since Havelange brought the World Cup to the US for the first time—a first gambit to help soccer crack the American market—FIFA’s vision has in many ways been realized. In the summer of 1994, NFL stadiums were filled with fans of a different football code who were cheering the national teams of Italy and Brazil and Nigeria. And, just as crucially for the young Americans who’d grown up playing soccer but never much seen it played well—and there were millions of us by then—US cable channels like the regional sports station that I grew up watching to catch the Red Sox and Celtics started showing soccer highlights from top foreign leagues.

Twenty-four years later, millions of American kids watch the English Premier League not via tape-delay on cable, but live on weekend mornings on NBC. Our all-conquering women’s national team, thanks in large part to Title IX’s enforcement of gender equity in sports, has taught us how eleven players moving in concert, in one’s nation’s colors, can evoke a rippling human flag. Young Americans these days, their parents increasingly drawn to a game less likely to concuss their kids than American football, also sport the replica jerseys of Roma and Liverpool and Real Madrid—and follow such foreign clubs’ fortunes with an avidity suggested by a recent ESPN poll that found that for Americans aged twelve to twenty-four, watching soccer has surpassed even basketball in popularity. Americans, in other words, have now joined the world in the obsessive attention paid to telecasts of twenty-two people chasing a ball around a field—uniting us, as Jules Rimet hoped, by hailing our differences.

Haynes Archive/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesFormer FIFA President Jules Rimet waving as he arrives in Montevideo to attend the first World Cup tournament, Uruguay, 1930

In Russia, Germany is the defending champion. Brazil, though they flunked out four years ago at home, still has Neymar. Some countries—Saudi Arabia, Panama—are mostly glad just to be involved. Talent-laden France and Belgium will hope to go far. Teams from soccer-rich nations who’ve qualified for their first Cup in decades—Egypt is one, Peru’s another—will live whole other dramas. Devotees of the thirty-two teams competing in Russia may dream about what it would feel like to lift the Cup, but true fans also know that it’s the experience of losing, in all its variety and pain, that most molds our affinities. A famous win, a beautiful goal, an advance beyond what the doubters predicted—the moments of joy, before the inevitable disappointments, are what fans live by. Only eight nations have ever lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy (Brazil has done so five times and Italy and Germany four times apiece; Uruguay and Argentina each got lucky twice; England, France, and Spain are one-timers). This summer, thirty-one nations will go home from Russia losers. But soccer’s propensity for producing “unjust” results—games in which the better team loses, or that are decided, even in this era of VAR, “video assisted refereeing,” by officials’ errors—is also part of its pull.

Few spectacles can match World Cup soccer for affirming a fatalistic sense—unless you’re German, and expect to win—that your people were born under a bad sign. To be English, in the world of the World Cup, is to gird oneself for watching your once-great nation crash out on penalties. To be Mexican is to be from a nation forever fated to reach the round of sixteen, but then get eliminated by a bad call or bad luck. Octavio Paz did write in Labyrinth of Solitude, of reveling in a country of the fucked, that “La chingada is the mother of all Mexicans.” Perhaps we can all agree—unless we’re fans of Portugal—on a loathing of Cristiano Ronaldo’s preening antics. But the World Cup looks different depending on where you watch from, as our series aims to show by featuring writers exploring the Cup’s meanings from the vantage of varied nations taking part.

Ninety years ago, Jules Rimet welcomed commerce into international soccer to launch a competition wherein, he wrote, “foundational violence is subsumed to discipline and the rules of the game.” Today, we’re living in times when rules-based approaches are being scorned and smashed—and even Rimet’s global institution has been shaken by the crass logic of cash and political exploitation by strongmen. But on the fields where World Cup teams play, and in the bars and living rooms and cafés where we get to watch, his vision persists.

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Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t

Lass/Getty ImagesFormer world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, circa 1930s

On May 24, when Donald Trump pardoned Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, for a century-old criminal conviction motivated by racial malice, it was hard to tell what gave him more satisfaction: that he could exonerate a once world-famous athlete, or that he could exonerate himself from charges of racism. During the brief Oval Office ceremony, Trump flanked himself with star athletes real and imagined—most notably, Sylvester Stallone, of Rocky fame, whose phone call to the president in April put the pardon on Trump’s radar. Two weeks later, on June 8, Trump mused that he might pardon Muhammad Ali, too, for a criminal charge (refusing the Vietnam draft) that the Supreme Court had already overturned nearly four decades ago. Coming amid the president’s long-running feud with black NFL athletes, it seemed less that Trump had gained a soft spot for black men undone by racism, and more that he judged the symbolic pardoning of dead black athletes would provide him cover for his seething disdain for living ones.  

At the Johnson pardoning ceremony, Trump shied away from actually naming the cause of Johnson’s 1913 conviction, racism, telling reporters that Johnson served ten months in prison for “what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” Who today could legitimately not view it that way? Johnson’s crime was to transport his white girlfriend, a one-time prostitute, across state lines, a violation of what was known as the White Slave Traffic Act. Though nominally intended to cut down on prostitution, the law only applied to white sex-workers, and, in Johnson’s case, the prosecution was meant to humiliate an athlete who gleefully defied the nation’s racial caste system—especially through his serial marriages to white women. 

If some might have excused Trump’s vague description of Johnson’s crime—being black—as the awkwardness that many white people feel when discussing race, then they were denied that defense when Trump attacked President Obama for choosing not to pardon Johnson. Not even the Congressional Black Caucus could sway Obama, Trump told reporters: “They couldn’t get the president to sign it,” he said, clearly reveling in what he, and many of his supporters, took to be a delightful irony. “So I am taking this very righteous step.” But as reporters looked into Obama’s decision, one thing became clear: Johnson had a history of beating women, a fact that gave Obama pause. That Trump felt no such compunction did not merely reflect his misogyny; what Trump did not seem to realize, as he was basking in his righteousness, was that he, as a white man, had a privilege Obama did not.

One of the least discussed facts about Johnson’s life is that black leaders in his own time disagreed mightily over whether to defend Johnson. There was never any question that racism drove Johnson’s conviction. Nor was there ever any doubt that many black Americans adored him. The problem was that Johnson acted as if his actions would have no bearing on the rest of his race. Johnson flaunted his affairs with white women, he flashed his wealth, he hired white servants, he talked back to white police—all at a time when thousands of black people were lynched for less. It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s black critics at the time as simply caving to “respectability politics,” but that was only part of it. The larger issue was that anytime Johnson defied the racial order, black Americans suffered the consequences, sometimes with lost jobs, often with violence. When he defeated a white challenger for the heavyweight title in 1910, white mobs attacked celebrating black Americans around the country, killing more than a dozen. After Johnson married a white woman one year later, “many colored waiters, porters… and colored men employed in various capacities” were fired, wrote The Broad Ax, a black newspaper in Chicago.

To make matters worse, Johnson refused to play the part of black activist. He rejected racial consciousness in favor of color-blindness, believing his celebrity would help him transcend discrimination. “There ain’t gonna be but one Jack Johnson,” he said at the peak of his fame, writing later in his memoir: “I found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if race did not exist.”

In the 1970s, when Johnson briefly came back in vogue, his defiance of white supremacy was cast as proto-black radicalism. Muhammad Ali himself would watch Johnson’s films before fights, seeing a semblance of himself in what he took to be another outspoken, proudly black athlete. More recently, Ken Burns’s 2004 PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness—the film that spearheaded the pardon cause—cheered Johnson’s defiance of racial expectations, black and white, seeing it as a symbol of the true independent American spirit: “He embodied American individualism in its purest form,” wrote Geoffrey Ward, in the companion book to the film. In truth, neither was right. Jack Johnson didn’t believe in black militancy, in black uplift, in black anything. The story of Jack Johnson isn’t the story of Colin Kaepernick; it’s the story of O.J.         

PA Images via Getty ImagesJohnson victorious when James Jeffries went down in the fifteenth round of their title fight, 1910

Jack Johnson rose to fame at a time when black Americans needed a hero like him more than ever. In 1908, during the heyday of Jim Crow, Johnson became the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title. Segregation had been confirmed as constitutional just twelve years earlier, with the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision; lynchings were a fact of American life. Johnson’s 1908 victory so incensed white Americans that it became a national pastime to cast about for a “Great White Hope” to take back the title. They found their white knight in Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who agreed to come out of retirement to put Johnson in his place—and by extension, all black Americans in theirs.

The “Fight of the Century,” as it was called, was set for July 4, 1910, in the sweltering Reno, Nevada, sun. Twenty thousand people trekked to the desert, but millions more listened to live radio broadcasts across the country. Given the fight’s explicit racial framing, it was no surprise that many black Americans greeted Johnson’s victory with euphoria. “There would be something wrong with us if we felt otherwise,” wrote The New York Age, one of the city’s black papers. In small towns and large cities everywhere, black Americans publicly celebrated, toasted each other, riffed on ancient hymns. “Amaze an’ Grace, how sweet it sounds / Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down,” went one ballad heard in North Carolina. As Al-Tony Gilmore put it in his 1975 biography of Johnson, “Blacks found more reason to celebrate than at any other time since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The white response was its mirror opposite. Immediately after the fight, white mobs attacked black men and women throughout the country. In New York City, near Times Square, a mob of white people three thousand strong beat senseless black passersby at random. The New York Herald reported a police officer rescuing “one negro… who had a rope around his neck.” The Times quoted a white man yelling, “Let’s lynch the first nigger we meet!” Nationwide, at least eighteen people were killed in post-fight riots, and hundreds more were injured.

Johnson, however, was just getting started. Part of what made him a hero to many black Americans was his refusal to submit to white racial codes. And there was no code he loved to violate more than the one against black men dating white women. Johnson had several white lovers, some at the same time, many of them prostitutes. As the relationships became public—he didn’t hide them, often having himself photographed for newspapers with the women—black leaders struggled with how to respond. According to the scholar Carrie Teresa, many black editors were willing to defend his interracial relationships, despite the risks, so long as the women were respectable—in other words, not prostitutes—and so long as he did not abuse them. His marriage to Etta Duryea, a wealthy white socialite, on January 18, 1911, seemed to fit that bill. The Cleveland Gazette, for instance, covered the wedding respectfully, calling Duryea “a tall handsome young white woman” from a good family.

The problems started when reports of domestic abuse began to surface the following year. Johnson grew suspicious that Duryea was cheating on him with his white chauffeur; he, meanwhile, was cheating on her with several women, most notably a white, eighteen-year-old former prostitute named Lucille Cameron. Duryea grew more and more isolated—from her white family, which disowned her, and from Johnson, who abused her and cheated on her—and, on September 11, 1912, she shot herself. A few weeks later, Cameron’s mother pressed charges against Johnson for allegedly kidnapping her daughter. “I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a nigger,” Cameron’s mother fumed to reporters. On October 18, Johnson was arrested for violating the White Slave Traffic Act, but Cameron refused to cooperate and the case collapsed. But the FBI soon found another former lover, also a white prostitute, who agreed to testify against Johnson, and, on November 7, the agency had him arrested again on the same charge. On December 4, 1912, Johnson and Cameron married. 

Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesJohnson with his second wife, Lucille Cameron, 1924

Black leaders were furious—and not just at the racism that drove Johnson’s arrest. Many were furious that Johnson refused to feign even modest contrition for the sake of winning the trial, and more broadly, for the sake of saving black lives from white retribution. “It shows the folly of those who think that they alone will be held responsible for the evil they do,” Booker T. Washington said in a statement. But Washington, whose willingness to accommodate segregation won him many white supporters, was not the only one flabbergasted. Nearly a hundred black leaders in Chicago—businessmen, reverends, civil rights leaders—pleaded with Johnson to at least apologize for the comments he was alleged to have made, about his ability to have any white woman he wanted. He refused. “I am not a slave,” he told reporters. “I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man.”

Historians sometimes depict the militant Chicago Defender and its unbridled defense of Johnson as representative of black opinion. But responses were far more diverse. Upon Johnson’s arrest, the Texas Freeman wrote: “We, in this country, would be better off if Jack Johnson would quit the United States, burning the bridges as he left.” The Birmingham Exchange wrote that if the trial was fair, and the allegations true, then “we hope he will get everything that is coming to him as far as the law is concerned.” The New York Age noted: “As a black champion, [Jack Johnson] has given the Negro more trouble by his scandals than he did in twenty years as a black tramp.” The perspectives of black women are most difficult to discern. But the Texas Freeman hinted at one likely perception when it reported that “most people” viewed his marriages to white women as “apparently meaning the inferiority [he felt toward] his own race’s women.”

It was only during the trial itself that most black leaders and newspapers defended Johnson’s case, if not the man himself. It was abundantly clear that Johnson’s trial was going to center on one fact—his blackness—and not on the finer points of federal law. When an all-white jury found him guilty in the summer of 1913, almost no black newspaper cheered. Shortly after the verdict, Johnson fled the country, together with Lucille, returning seven years later to serve his ten-month sentence. Upon his release, in 1921, many black Americans again treated him as a hero. Harlem residents held a ticker-tape parade, Johnson beaming as he rolled down 125th Street, a cigar hanging from lips curled in an irrepressible smile. He looked “more like a man of twenty-five than forty-two,” wrote the historian Randy Roberts. Though Johnson had lost the heavyweight title six years earlier in a fight abroad, many black Americans still saw him as a symbol of black defiance, his conviction the embodiment of racial injustice.

Johnson loved the adulation black Americans gave him, but he did not give much back. Instead, he retreated into an almost exclusively white world and took on European affectations—a English accent, a French beret. He even tried to undermine boxers who were now fighting to reclaim the heavyweight title for black America. When, in 1929, he was asked if another black boxer would ever replace him, he dismissed the idea, saying that too many of them suffered from an “inferiority complex.” “They grew up with the thought implanted in their minds, through generations of tradition,” he said in a series of “as told to” newspaper articles, “that the COLORED is not equal to the WHITE.” In the 1930s, as Joe Louis emerged as his clear successor, Johnson quietly solicited white opponents to defeat him. Johnson’s negative views of black women, once only speculated about, now became clear. “I could love a colored woman. But they never give me anything,” he said. “Colored women just won’t play up to a man the way white girls do… They don’t try to make him feel like he’s somebody.”

When Trump pardoned him, the president seemed to be buying into the very strategy Johnson long felt would exonerate him: that his celebrity would help white Americans see him not as a black man, but as Jack Johnson, a champion who transcended race. In the Oval Office ceremony, Trump focused only on Johnson’s athletic prowess and individualism—“one of the greatest that ever lived,” a “very independent spirit.” This was not only the view that Johnson took of himself, but also the view that Ken Burns took. To Burns, Johnson’s story wasn’t a black story, at least not primarily: it was an American story and, in his telling, a largely race-less one. “The story of Jack Johnson is more the story of hubris more than race or anything else,” says James Earl Jones in the film’s opening minutes. “Forget about race. That was the color of the system, but it was about power.” There is some truth in that, but how do you speak about power if you refuse to give it a name?

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